Alex Brown, in ODF – OASIS and JTC 1 Get It Together, refers to those like me, who have been vocal in our disapproval of ISO’s handling of office-document standards, as the “tinfoil brigade” with a “crazed oppositional narrative”. He even provides an illustration of the use of a shiny silver fashion statement. Is this fair?

It should be noted that Alex is not alone. Back in July, Michael Sperberg-McQueen, one of the most balanced and thorough thinkers I’ve ever had the privilege of working with, noted with displeasure that some factions in the OOXML argument took positions that were not only passionately emotional but veered into the ad hominem.

Seems Conclusive · On the one hand, there is the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission coming together under to form Joint Technical Committee 1, which gathers the world’s experts (many of them being paid full-time to do this) to develop International Standards which in many jurisdictions effectively have the force of law. Neither passion nor anger is typically a feature of ISO/IEC JTC1 processes.

Furthermore, in the context of the OOXML discussion, the public statements made by the proponents of OOXML were even-toned, friendly, and couched in reasonable language.

On the other hand, a bunch of raucous Open-Source and Free-Culture crazies hissing vituperation about corruption, bullying, and treachery. Yes, and directly accusing individuals, companies and organizations (notably JTC1) of serious malfeasance.

To an outside observer, it seems obvious who should be lining up for the tinfoil headgear.

I’m Not an Outside Observer · I’ve put in years of my life in the standardization trenches, in the Web Consortium, the IETF, and most recently JTC1 (but never Oasis nor ECMA). I have a great deal of experience in designing and applying the technologies in question and a healthy degree of cynicism about the motives of, well, everyone. And I was in the room. So I may be wrong, but if so, the problem isn’t ignorance.

And I’m forced to say that, applying only a very modest amount of cynicism and paranoia, along with Occam’s razor, and the Really Big Question “Cui bono?”, I think the following conclusions, on the subject of the ECMA/JTC1 process around OOXML, are at least reasonable. I personally think they’re no-brainers.

  • There was substantial corruption brought to bear to influence the votes of certain National Bodies.

  • There was substantial bullying, directed in particular against individual members of certain National Bodies, with direct threats of career damage.

  • The procedure adopted by JTC1 was laughably inadequate given the size and complexity of the material under discussion.

  • The JTC1 process (in the bigger picture, not just this context) is badly broken. I need only state that National Bodies are routinely required to vote for or against draft standards that they have not had the opportunity to read. (I have to be careful or my tone will become shrill over this point).

Most but not all of the evidence which supports my conclusions is easily available on the public record.

I’m Angry · I can’t help it. I’m actually quite idealistic and believe that collaborative work which transcends the boundaries of nations and enterprises has the potential to benefit individuals, governments, and businesses everywhere. I cannot give an honest and complete account of my feelings about the ECMA/JTC1 process without resorting to coarse language and direct accusations against certain parties whom I believe to have acted at best unethically.

For the purposes of this little essay I will for obvious reasons restrain myself. I will, however, offer two assertions:

  • In the context of the process that led to the existence of ISO/IEC International Standard 29500, it is reasonable to be angry.

  • It is not reasonable to draw conclusions about the rights and wrongs of a complex and important issue, in which billions of dollars are at stake, based on who’s being polite.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Rick Jelliffe (Nov 17 2008, at 00:40)

In which jurisdictions do JTC1 (Information Technology) International Standards automatically have "the force of law"? As far as I am aware there is not one country where this is so, in the sense of forcing citizens to adopt technologies. It is a basic feature of ISO participation that ISO does not have any sovereignty, nor does a country give up any sovereignty by participation at ISO.

To talk of "force of law" rather than, say, "theoretical preferential consideration for national standards or government procurement wishlists" is surely ratcheting things up a little?


From: Alex Brown (Nov 17 2008, at 01:03)

Tim hi

Of all the hats I've seen you wear, none has been made of tinfoil.

I'd don't think people who are angry/passionate are the "tinfoil hat wearers", it's people who interpret every tiniest incident as part of some grand conspiracy (usually with MS pulling the levers).

- Alex.


From: Terry Jones (Nov 17 2008, at 01:25)

I love it. It's admirably written. Just... barely... managing... to keep the lid on.


From: orlando (Nov 17 2008, at 09:07)

alex brown said: "it's people who interpret every tiniest incident as part of some grand conspiracy "

Never attribute to conspiracy that which is adequately explained by unethical business practices.


From: Tony Fisk (Nov 17 2008, at 15:13)

I notice that Alex, having excluded him from the tin foil category, has not repudiated any of the other statements Tim has made.


From: Faraway (Nov 18 2008, at 01:29)

"I personally think they're no-brainers."

As someone else close enough to the process to personally witness worldwide news about corruption and bullying being generated from from absolutely nothing by a process of calculated gossip and whispering circles. Because of this personal experience I have real difficulty believing the first two of "no-brainers".

I still haven't seen evidence of them other than gossip originating from opponents of OOXML with an obvious self-interest in spreading that gossip, true or not.

Given that scraps of nothing were used so effectively, if someone has real evidence of this and it actually happened I'm sure they would not have hesitated to use it to full advantage.

Strangely that hasn't happened so I am left thinking it is nothing but mean gossip and slander that its authors should be ashamed of.

In the few cases where the accusations were loud enough to draw formal responses from the accused standards bodies, the defence has appeared far more convincing that than the supposed corruption and bullying allegations.

I suppose that makes me a bit angry too, but sort of in the opposite way.


From: Bjørn (Nov 18 2008, at 01:54)

Interesting post from Rick Jelliffe. In his quote, he skips "effective" and substitutes "automatic". Quite a twist of words, wouldn't you say?

At least where I live, a lot of regulations - e.g. concerning power wiring and plumbing in buildings, - have effectively the force of law and incorporate by reference international standards.


From: Franco Merletti (Nov 18 2008, at 02:48)

Rick Jelliffe said "In which jurisdictions do JTC1 [...] Standards automatically have "the force of law"? "

Rick, i believe that the post includes the word "effectively":

Hope it helps ;-)



From: Tony Fisk (Nov 18 2008, at 03:11)

Of course, there may be times when having a tinfoil hat is a good thing


From: Carolyn (Nov 18 2008, at 05:19)

Tim, I can’t tell you how much I admire your level-headedness in this matter.

As an outsider, I can’t imagine based on what you’ve written you ever wore a tin foil hat, and based on what I’ve read of interactions between you and Alex, Alex didn’t either.

Now you have me thinking, which you always do.

Your piece is well written, and as you say, “The comments are excellent.” :-)

Something is going on here, I can see that as an outsider. It’s not you in a tin foil hat, either.

I support you, Tim.

Best Regards,

Carolyn A. Colborn


From: Alex Brown (Nov 18 2008, at 06:45)

@Tony Fisk

Sorry, I can't spend all day firefighting in the blogosphere - I have to earn a living too!

Look - I am not an apologist either for OOXML or JTC 1's processes - if you want to know what I really think on these subjects (rather than what it is convenient for the tinfoilers to label me as thinking), then it's mostly on my blog. Recommended!

(This would be a good place to start:

As it happens my own personal view of fast-tracking (which matches that of some nations, like - I believe - Canada) is that accelerated standardisation is not suitable for large specifications like OOXML. However any view of this topic which fails to take into account the problems of ODF standardisation is usually, in my view, partial to the point of being hypocritical.

So on process problems, both large and small, Tim and I would I think broadly agree. However on the specific point (which threatens to makes Tim shrill) that "National Bodies are routinely required to vote for or against draft standards that they have not had the opportunity to read." -- this is just wrong. Countries can (and should) vote to abstain when they cannot (for whatever reason) form an opinion. It happens all the time.

Substantial bullying and corruption are hard to comment on when not actually substantiated. I'm sure Tim and I have both heard an overlapping set of accounts (some at first hand) of some of the low blows that were struck during the process. I've experienced some myself. I have a fairly cynical view of big corporations generally, and nothing in the last year disabused me of that. And oh, that's all corporations, not just MS.

In general the view that OOXML was standardised as a result of "corruption" has to include an assessment that all the standards bodies of the long-established national players (e.g. USA, Japan, Germany, France and the UK) were corrupted by MS. I think that's *clearly* irrational. Tinfoil-worthy, definitely -- it's "the world is against us", almost literally.

A while ago Tim wrote a piece ( outlining the pros and cons of standardising OOXML. That's where most people were, weighing up the pros and cons. It just so happened that the overall international decision fell on the "pro" side. Of course, the tinfoilers hate to allow that narrative and have to pursue the fallacy of the excluded middle. In their world, only somebody who has been "corrupted" (or who was a shill, nazi, puppet etc.) could think the standardisation of OOXML a worthwhile thing. Resist that fallacy. For almost every independent person I know who approved the standarisation, it was a fairly finely-balanced decision.

Tim's overall point is that the axis of polite/angry does not mean much in terms of the overall debate. I don't think I strongly disagree with that, but I find it a slightly odd response to my piece which was on the future maintenance of ODF, and the fuss that had surrounded that. The axis that concerns me is the one with irrationality and stupidity at one end and enlightenment at the other. I, like Tim, would say I was quite idealistic; we just take some different views on how to achieve ideals, I suppose. But that's okay -- it would be a dull world if everybody agreed with each other ...


From: Ian Easson (Nov 18 2008, at 07:01)

I would very much like to hear from you some details of "substantial corruption" and "substantial bullying". You have called these no-brainers, but I know of no such incidents, after having looked into all the accusations (apart from the mistake in Sweden with an inexperienced Microsoft employee, which got corrected within hours).

Please note that I am not saying this did not occur. It's just that all such accusations dissolve into nothing once you look at them objectively in detail. Unless, of course, you are aware of things that have not yet been publically revealed.

If so, I would think you should state them here, rather than simply making sweeping unsupported statements (like the tin-hat crowd).


From: len (Nov 18 2008, at 07:18)

Stand high up in a stadium packed with people and you will see large patterns of movement that appear to be purposeful when they are actually only proximate, that is, should we interpret the rustling of 1000 people walking to the bathroom or the concession stand as a conspiracy to go right or down?

Yet on the field, the patterns of two teams trying to get possession of the foot ball and score are planned in great detail even if the actual execution varies from the drawing on the locker room chalkboard.

There are the players and there is a chorus. Like it or not, plans are made and reacted to. There are real competitive objectives and because in the Internet age we insisted that all web products be standardized, we made the standards organizations a stadium hosting the games of competitive teams.

The question is are any of them cheating and the answer is, we can't tell because what referees there are can't see everything going on and the rules allow for that.

If you want less tinfoil, you'll need to use more clear wrap. ISO has to take a hard look at its processes and see what is needed to keep play on the field transparent to the players and the referees. Otherwise, the people in the stands have to quit confusing long lines at the concession stand with the game itself.


From: zoobab (Nov 18 2008, at 07:56)

Some people wants to say that the ISO system is still alive.

I am afraid that many people thinks the opposite nowadays after the OOXML experience.

ISO is dead for software standards.

Do you need an official funeral?


From: Tony Fisk (Nov 18 2008, at 13:48)

@Alex, thanks for the response to what was an admittedly snippy comment. I don't have objections to something like OOXML being presented as a standard. However, I think a standard's reputation is important, and the process for this one does appear to have been very murky: which *is* of concern to someone who might be asked to use it someday.

Also, in speaking of documentation standards, we are dealing here with something that represents the 'synapses of society', so I feel justified in being more suspicious than I would normally.

Still, as you say, life is too short for fire-fights, so I will go and read what your comments were.


From: Ian Easson (Nov 18 2008, at 14:30)

Bjorn said:

"At least where I live, a lot of regulations - e.g. concerning power wiring and plumbing in buildings, - have effectively the force of law and incorporate by reference international standards."

That has nothing to do with the power of ISO to impose anything -- it can't.

What has happened in all those cases is that the state has freely chosen to adopt certain international standards, and enforces this choice with the rule of law.


From: Rick Jelliffe (Nov 18 2008, at 18:38)

Bjorn: 1) The ISO standards on plumbing or whatever are usually adopted because they are national standards: the national body transposes the international standard and the regulations adopt the national standard. That is the way I have only ever seen it operating: as I asked, what countries have a different system? So there are usually two steps of vetting between JTC1 and mandating: this is just not automatic and not "effective".

2) My comments were specifically on JTC1 (Information Technology). So plumbing standards are a red herring.

My question stands.

On the issue of effective versus automatic, knowing the answer to whether any IT standards automatically become required is a reasonable basis for judging in what way they are "effectvely" required.

I would like to see examples of this "effective"ness for JTC1 IT standards: Java is not an ISO standard, has there been any lack of acceptance of it compared to (for example) ISO C++ or ISO ADA? Has ISO EcmaScript really prevented rival dialects from having a market share?

It is this panic about the status of standards that pushes people into emotionalism. The idea that somehow mere standardization (at JTC1 Information Technology) will force us all into the thrall of the big nasty. Panic is the reason why reasonable people resort to name-calling.


From: Bill Rutiser (Nov 19 2008, at 09:24)

Tim wrote:

"I need only state that National Bodies are routinely required to vote for or against draft standards that they have not had the opportunity to read".

Please expand on this. Does the procedure formally deny them access to the draft? If so what document are they actually asked to vote on? Or is that the time allowed for a national body to react is too short to distribute copies and expect otherwise employed experts to study and comment?

-- Bill


From: Ian Easson (Nov 20 2008, at 06:59)

Bill asks:

"Does the procedure formally deny them access to the draft? If so what document are they actually asked to vote on? Or is that the time allowed for a national body to react is too short to distribute copies and expect otherwise employed experts to study and comment?"

I am not an expert on the formal process. So, I won't comment on what the actual process requirements are.

However, the following facts are not disputed by anyone who has actually checked into the matter:

- The national bodies at the BRM all had access to a complete draft of the proposed changes

- Any National Body that wished to contribute to the creation of the draft could have. The creation was an open, transparent process.

- Intermediate drafts were distributed to the National Bodies during the period between the first vote and the BRM. (And to the public!)

- The period of time normally between a failed vote and a BRM is about a month or so. In this case, the National Bodies had *five* months to read the drafts as they were being produced.

- In addition to the draft, a special document was made for each of the National Bodies participating, listing their particular comments and the proposed disposition of them. This was to help them understand not just the draft as a whole, but their specific contribution.

Given the above, I find it very hard to imagine that any of the National Bodies didn't have time to read things. It sounds suspiciously like another one of those myths around the whole process. But that's just my impression.


From: Venkatesh Hariharan (Nov 24 2008, at 03:44)

Well, in this case anger is justified. I was part of the process in India and we worked hard to ensure that the arm twisting by Microsoft did not work in India. In Sri Lanka, the technical committee voted against OOXML but the country abstained. In Bangladesh, there was no open discussion on OOXML before the country voted in favor. In Pakistan, a secretive committee consisting on 4 Microsoft Gold Partners met and listened to a presentation by Microsoft and voted in favor of OOXML. Incidentally, Pakistan became a "P" member of ISO a month before the first OOXML vote. Angry? We all should be furious!


From: rebate (Nov 25 2008, at 01:19)

Alex Brown suggests that if a delegation is unable to form an opinion about a draft standard (e.g. because they don't have time to absorb its detail properly), then they should choose to vote "abstain".

I believe that voting against the draft would be a better strategy: If the counting process is based on the ratio of for/against positions, then an "abstain" vote will tend to exaggerate any existing trend in the votes, but this effect may not be in the NB's best interests.

The standards process is a power struggle between nations; if a standard is adopted as an international instrument of cooperation, it applies to all countries, not just those that approved of it. Therefore, voting "abstain" where the NB hasn't reached an opinion on the sum of the risks versus benefits of the standard is likely to grant more power to the NBs with strong positions.



From: Faraway (Nov 25 2008, at 01:37)


Hey that doesn't sound too good, but also it doesn't sound like something corrupt or even unethical if it follows the requirement of the National Body.

I'm not suggesting there are not problems with the way some National Bodies operate, but this is the choice of each National Body and decided by each country.

There are several stories like the ones you mention on both sides it seems and I have seen one personally where a country voted against OOXML.

This is frustrating but if it's disliked then we should all work toward a better system in our own countries. And be careful not to spread hysteria.


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