Open debate

Print edition : November 20, 2009

Software professionals hold a candlelight vigil at the Town Hall in Bangalore against the use of proprietary software and ISO standardisation, in April 2008.-V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

THE information technology (IT) industry in India is bitterly divided over the issue of technological standards to be adopted in e-governance processes. This problem stems from the fact that large, state-funded e-governance projects in the pipeline present the recession-hit IT sector with substantial business opportunities.

With the guidelines for setting these standards being finalised by the Department of Information Technology (DIT) under the National Policy on Open Standards for E-Governance, the debate on the nature of the standards critical to the effective delivery of public e-services is hotting up. Intense lobbying is on by those in favour of proprietary standards and by the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement, which is against it.

When the draft policy was tabled at the meeting of the apex committee of standards for e-governance in June, the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) and the Manufacturers Association for Information Technology (MAIT) pushed for two modifications to it: the replacement of open and free standards with royalty-based ones, and allowing multiple standards in the same technological domain.

The FOSS community and open source technology firms have opposed these demands strongly. Fosscomm, a FOSS community network, wrote to the DIT seeking the withdrawal of both clauses. Leading open source technology firms such as Sun Microsystems, IBM and Red Hat have pointed out that the NASSCOM-MAIT position is at divergence with theirs and, therefore, does not reflect a unified industry perspective.

The DIT, which made public the first draft of the policy in June 2008, has not placed subsequent drafts for public review. Fosscomm has protested against the unparticipatory nature of this policymaking process, which has considerable public-interest implications, not to mention an outlay of over Rs.5,000 crore for 27 national e-governance projects.

The FOSS community believes that for a standard to be truly open, its specifications must be unconditionally accessible and royalty-free in perpetuity. This includes associated patents and extensions. NASSCOM, on the other hand, has sought standards that are open but tied to royalties, on what in policy parlance is called RAND (reasonable and non-discriminatory) licensing terms.

However, RAND standards are inextricably linked to intellectual property right (IPR) regimes. The government may have to pay royalties to patent holders throughout the lifetime of the standards. Further, the FOSS community argues that reasonable/non-discriminatory is a loose term that can be interpreted to the advantage of the patent holder. And with licence confidentiality being what it is, violations will be hard to monitor, it feels.

Prabir Purkayastha of the Delhi Science Forum believes that the policy, if implemented in its current form, will create an anomalous position for the government. That would imply that India still does not legally recognise software patents, yet is willing to accept patent protection in its standards.

The first draft of the policy unambiguously states that the open standard chosen must be royalty-free for its lifetime, but subsequent drafts allowed for RAND terms to be invoked in the absence of an existing open standard. This loophole, FOSS supporters fear, may allow powerful lobbies to hijack these standards in a non-transparent environment inside committee rooms.

If, as the proprietary camp wishes, open standards are redefined as RAND exclusively, a substantial portion of the taxpayers money will go towards royalties and software monopolies will be entrenched into this growing segment.

Leading Indian IT companies have supported proprietary software; this was evident from the debate on Indias vote at the International Standards Organisation (ISO) on the Open Document Format versus Microsofts OOXML controversy.

If we do not pay for using weights and measures in the physical world, why should we in the digital world? asks Venkatesh Hariharan, corporate affairs director, Red Hat. Its a trap. Proprietary formats are controlled by monopolistic outfits that drive adoption of a technology, file a thicket of patents, and litigate if royalties arent paid.

The Internet, built on several open standards, is the best example of how open standards form the basis of major technological innovations. It allows for a level playing field, particularly in developing economies. By framing a purely open standards policy, India can show the way for the developing world.

Developed countries (such as those of the European Union) are moving towards mandating open standards in government departments, processes and interactions. However, it is developing countries that stand to gain most from open standards. Proprietary standards place a larger burden on developing economies than developed as they have a greater need to participate in the global network by using standards, but do have lesser capabilities than developed economies in terms of paying for royalties, writes Pranesh Prakash, Centre for Internet and Society, in his letter to the DIT. The industry view is not in the interests of small- and medium-size enterprises.

An Indian case study of how open standards can cut costs, foster monopoly-free competition and provide interoperability is the Smart Card Operating System for Transport Applications (SCOSTA). A standard for smart card-based driving licences and vehicle registration projects handled by different State governments, SCOSTA was developed by the National Informatics Centre with help from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.

The number of vendors providing cards and card readers increased after an open standard was adopted and specifications were made freely available on a website.

While four foreign companies were marketing smart cards earlier, over a dozen Indian companies are doing the same now, according to a United Nations Development Programme report on e-government interoperability. More significantly, IPR rents dropped and the market price of a card came down from Rs.300 to Rs.30.

On the second issue that of allowing multiple standards in a single technological domain the policy allows adopting additional standards in national interest.

Public data, like land records, lie at the core of every e-governance process; multiple standards create interoperability issues and increase the cost of conversion from one format to another. In fact, if a standard is truly open, and hence developed in a participative manner, it will automatically grow to incorporate any reasonable requirement of the community.

Although this tussle appears to be restricted to the e-governance space, much more is really at stake. In a developing economy such as India, open and royalty-free technological standards are critical because they enable domestic industries to grow and compete in a fair and monopoly-free market. And, by enabling access to technology, they foster an innovation-friendly environment.

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