Husha Busha – We All Fall Down!

With Rakhi Sawant’s swayambhar coming to a close, I was all ready for unexpected drama. However, drama unfolded elsewhere and the main actors, NASSCOM and  Manufacturers’ Association for Information Technology (MAIT), gave the government and the IT industry quite a jolt.

The drama was in relation to the Draft Policy on Open Standards for E-Governance, introduced by the Ministry of Information and Communication Broadcasting last year. The policy has been high on controversy ever since it’s release. In an earlier post on SpicyIP I had commented on the first version of the policy. Since then the draft policy has been modified a couple of times and after two years the (presumably) final version is ready for release.

A brief background is as follows: the policy aims to enunciate the principles based on which government agencies are to adopt a single, royalty – free open standard for their e-governance projects. The importance of this policy is reflected in the fact that the standard which the government adopts in keeping with this policy will guide the multi-billion dollar procurement of IT software and hardware across government departments so as to ensure interoperability among disparate IT systems.

In terms of reactions, while biggies like Red Hat and Sun Microsystems are praising the present draft policy, other industry powerhouses like Nasscom, MAIT and Microsoft are opposing the policy on the grounds that it may hurt business interests of some companies, given the fact that in order to be in the race for lucrative government contracts many companies would have to alter their standards and adopt a more open, transparent setup. CIS, Bangalore has been involved in the modification of this policy and their write ups work as a useful guide on the issue.

Moving on, the latest ruckus was created by NASSCOM which, along with MAIT, sent a letter to the DIT recommending inclusion of clauses which allow for ‘multiple standards’ and ‘royalty on software’ as against ‘single’ standard and ‘free’ software.

The present draft of the policy supports a single royalty – free standard. The reasoning behind supporting a single standard is explained in paragraphs 4.3 to 4.4 of the final version of the policy. These paras read as follows:

“4.3 The naive approach [to adopt multiple standards] is neither desirable, nor necessary. The usual way out is for each application to be based on a single standard to which other choices can be bidirectionally converted and/or interfaced. A judicious choice of this single standard is very critical. Ideally it should be a well-established, unencumbered, open standard, adopted and maintained in a collaborative and transparent manner by all stakeholders. This will ensure maximum choice and a level playing field for all technical innovations, which only need to ensure complete conformance with the single selected open standard.

4.4 This Policy has been designed to meet these objectives. GOI shall select a single open standard for each domain using the verifiable fair and transparent process outlined in Section 6.1.”

NASSCOM’s letter and differential stance reflects the split in the IT industry. In her write up on NASSCOM’s stance, Shalini Singh states that NASSCOM’s half hearted support for development of open standards is a result of lobbying of some tech companies against adoption of such Open Standards. This understanding is also reflected in Fosscom’s statement that, “Two central features of the draft policy are – single and royalty-free standards. However, we understand that there is a lot of pressure from vested interested [parties] to dilute these key aspects of the policy, by sneaking in provisions for ‘multiple standards’ as also possibilities of allowing revenue streams from some ‘proprietary’ standards.”

Defending its stance, Mr. Rajdeep Sehrawat, Vice President, NASSCOM said that, “Ways can be worked out commercially to make a large e-governance project viable. Making everything patent-free may not be a commercial proposition as there might not be good standards available. On the other hand, adopting a single standard may constrict the country to adopt an old standard, if a new and better standard emerges in future. We support multiple standards which ensure interoperability at zero cost.”

Arguing against NASSCOM’s stance, Mr. Venkatesh Hariharan, Corporate Affairs Director, Red Hat states that, “… [Nasscom’s] two recommendations (RAND terms and multiple standards), if accepted, will lead to nullifying the work of the committee that has toiled for the last two years to create this policy because it will land us back to the current status quo dominated by multiple, proprietary standards…..

…E -Government data like land records etc remain relevant for hundreds of years. If this data is stored in proprietary formats, it will prove expensive for the country in the long-term. It is also seen that proprietary formats are controlled by monopolistic outfits that (a) drive the adoption of a technology (b) file a thicket of patents around that technology and (c) litigate or threaten litigation if royalties are not paid. India must avoid getting into this trap at all costs.

For each application area, there must be only a single standard. The use of multiple standards will lead to tremendous complications in the practice of e-governance. Since data is at the heart of e-governance, the confusion created by using multiple e-government standards in the same domain may bring e-governance to a stand still. For example, if different government departments use different standards for document storage, it could greatly slow down or even thwart the process of exchanging files among government departments.”

His stance on the issue is available in greater detail here.

The problem with having multiple standards is further explained by Mr. Prodyut Bora in a blog post titled, When Commercial Considerations and National Interests Collide, wherein he states that, “Just imagine a world where all paper manufacturers came up with their own dimensions of A4 paper! You would need different sets of printers to print these varying ‘A4’ pages.

.. The current debate is.. should India adopt a single standard in its eGovernance projects, or should there be a multiplicity of ‘interoperable’ standards?

I would argue that this is the very beginning of the digital millennium and it is in our national interest to preserve our ‘digital sovereignty’. Our public data—whether it be land records, or taxation records, or governmental correspondence—is national property. Why should it be locked-up in the proprietary algorithms of a multinational software corporation, even if it comes to us at present for free? We owe it to our future generations to handover the data, information and knowledge we generate in a manner that is free of any technological encumbrance.

Given this perspective, the current demand for multiple standards by Nasscom is misplaced. Multiple standards would introduce duplicacy and reduce perfect interoperability between competing products. Whereas a single open standard would remove entry barriers and encourage innovation by small local firms with limited risk appetite, multiple standards would favour market-dominating multinational.. Multiple standards would also result in unnecessarily high costs incurred in writing ‘bridge’ code to connect different products, and things like data migration.

It is because of such short-sightedness in the past that we have landed up with a plethora of identity systems—Election ID Card, PAN Card, Ration Card—before finally the wisdom of a unified ID system dawned.”

The other concern is the attempt to include RAND terms instead of a royalty free set up. In this regard Mr. Hariharan argues that, “[given the fact that] the vast majority of standards are controlled by entities that lie outside our borders. If accepted, NASSCOM (and MAIT’s) suggestions will mean that the country will pay huge royalties to foreign outfits. Does anyone remember what happened to us when the British East India Company came to us with a similar proposal?”

Addressing both these issues, Pranesh Prakash, Programme Manager, CIS, Bangalore states that, “even ‘reasonable and non-discriminatory’ terms of licensing of standards are in fact discriminatory as they prevent the development of free/libre/open source software based on those standards.  And while having multiple implementations of a standard is beneficial as it increases consumer (i.e., governmental) choice, having multiple incompatible standards is detrimental to the government’s interest as the policy itself recognizes in paragraph 4.2, and the very purpose (as enumerated  in paragraphs 1, 3, and 4) of having standards is defeated.  Even if the multiple standards are bi-directionally interoperable, additional costs are incurred in having concurrent multiple standards.”

As far as the present situation is concerned, there seems to be a stalemate. As per Mr. Hariharan’s post, the situation as of now is that the industry associations have asked for more time to submit the views of their members and therefore DIT has postponed the next meeting of the Apex Committee to review the Draft Open Standards Policy. The meeting was to have happened on 15th July, 2009 but will now probably be held in August 2009. 

Hence, picture abhi baki hain doston…






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3 thoughts on “Husha Busha – We All Fall Down!”

  1. It is indeed strange that a group comes and says that the purchaser should change what it is want to buy because the group which is influenced by seller who is a known monopolist…

    Isnt it the right of the buyer to buy or not buy what he or she wants?

  2. @Abhijit
    This is not about software, but about software standards.

    Furthermore, the government is unlike any other buyer in that it is accountable to the citizenry at large (for we all are ‘shareholders’ in the government). The government does not have a ‘right’ to mandate that all its citizens use one particular software to communicate with the government.

  3. @Anonymous Coward

    Its all the more a reason for the government to embrace open standards which are independent of any specific manufacturer, especially one which is a well known monopoly.

    The government is well within its rights to mandate a particular software provided it is freely available at highly affordable prices and is capable of doing work much more than communicating with the government.

    At the end of the day it has to benefit the local businesses whose profits are shared by the country and not some foreign businesses whose profits are shared by some other country/ies

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