European Innovation Summit 5: Standardisation for innovation empowerment

During the 5th European Innovation Summit, I was invited to present my views on standardisation processes and innovation. Standardisation is a very important activity and allows for open platforms that can be used by different parties. However, standardisation can also be a political point - laws are effectively the way we standardise behavioural norms for society. My address therefore focused on this issues, but was free form and therefore it is recollected from memory:


Standardisation is a clearly convenient tool, but it's important to remember that not all standardisation is always done on a purely technical level. Opting for a particular standardised norm can also be a political choice, and so we have in the European Union the situation that many of the north-eastern member states, like Finland and the Baltics, have railroads that are built according to an old Soviet or Russian standard width rather than the European standard width. It is clear that for the purposes of logistics, it was politically appropriate in each of those regions to pick one width for the railroads and stick with it. Now there is a frenetic discussion in the Baltics about whether to adapt their railroads to European standard widths. From a cost perspective that is unlikely to be beneficial. It costs a lot of money to build infrastructure. On the other hand, they may wish to have a larger exchange of goods with their European Union peers than with Russia, and from that political perspective of integration the discussion of railroad width makes sense. This is to show that standardisation can affect norms, economies and the perceived identities of entire nation states.

In the information technology field, which is where I do most of my political work, we have some notable instances where technical standards impose or codify behavioural norms that we may want to take a serious look at politically. I have been dedicating some time to the EME standardisation process at World Wide Web Consortium - to my understanding, this standardisation process pretends to enforce a behavioural norm over which we have no political consensus. It is either an overhaul of what is technically possible within the framework of broadcasting, or it is a process that risks removing many of our citizens' legal rights to engage with cultural material for parody, political discourse, quoting and further creativity. In Europe, this is a particular problem because our legal framework is already fragmented. But we also have some member states where the freedom to use culture for political and society discourse is especially important - Poland being the notable example of where this freedom is even enshrined in the Constitution.

We may want to have a serious political discussion about which type of norms we want to be codified in technology. It is clear that communications technologies for a large extent define the boundaries of what is possible in terms of human interactions, and as democratically elected representatives it may not at all be desirable that we outsource the responsibility of setting these norms to some technical consortia.

Similarly, we have had problems with tracking and tracing, which is actually illegal in the European Union if the consent of the private person is not obtained. Here we have seen very little standardisation going on, and projects by industry to follow the law have fell short of success. When the legislators make norms for society and decide on a particular route to follow, one has to ask if it is not appropriate for those same legislators to follow up on the norms. Ultimately it matters much for what society we are getting which behavioural norms we advance and which liberties and freedoms in the communications that citizens get.


The discussion prior to my intervention and afterwards was highly focused on the project Open-Stand.org, a community for innovation which is founded on the W3C, IEEE, and other standard organisations that are independent from governmentally ran standardisation institutions (in Sweden IIS, I think, and in the EU ETSI, for telecommunications).

The commentary was centered on how Open-Stand was agreed upon, and also the wide adoption of the Ethernet standard in various places in society. The Commission presented the advancements of their multi-stakeholder group for ICT standardisation. One thing which struck me was the unification idea: the idea of total unification is indeed very appealing, and it is nice to know that you are part of a standardisation group which reaches every place in society (like Ethernet). On both a technical and a political level, one can argue that complete unification of technologies is not necessarily desirable: we may want different systems in cars from what we have in washing machines. For instance. On unification theories in general much can be said, and many observations can be made both economically and socially. A problem which is intellectually satisfying ("how do we unify the theories of everything?") can have a practically undesirable result (string theory comes to mind). In principle, I was left with the feeling that maybe we focus too much on what is intellectually satisfying and too little on what is practically desirable. We also, but this is a more general problem that I also raised in my intervention, don't define what is the actual direction we want to move. The political leadership, or moral leadership as it were, is lacking somehow and that is one of the problems that the Pirate Party could reresent a solution to.



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