FSMI's response to DIT's Draft Policy on Open Standards for e-Governance Version 1.1

Department of Information Technology(DIT) has drafted a policy on Open Standards for e-Governance and they kept this draft for public review. Read this draft here
Free Software Movement of India(FSMI), a national coalition of free software organizations would like to submit comments on the Draft Policy on Open Standards for e-Governance Version 1.1 dated May 2010, for the kind consideration of the Department of Information Technology.

We thank DIT and all those involved in drafting this policy which is commendable. This policy is a landmark policy for e-Governance and has tremendous long term implications in e-Governance and also on the future of the information society in India. We welcome DIT's initiative in creating this policy because the provisioning of public goods like open standards can be done only through government intervention. The current situation, where de-facto proprietary standards, encumbered by heavy royalties, is a serious threat to the emerging global knowledge commons; and the free flow of ideas and information across the world. From a financial perspective and sovereignity of the nation, propagating proprietary standards would be tantamount to transferring wealth and knowledge from the citizens of our country into private hands. It is therefore heartening to note that DIT has taken a decisive step to mandate open standards. At the same time, we request DIT to define open standards more clearly in the policy and finalize it without delay, since the policy has been in the works since 2007 and has been delayed several times.

Our biggest concern is with Section 4.1.2 of the policy, which states that,
“The patent claims necessary to implement the Identified Standard shall be available on a Royalty-Free basis for the life time of the Standard. If such Standards are not found feasible then in the wider public interest, Fair, Reasonable and Non Discriminatory terms and conditions (FRAND) or Reasonable and Non Discriminatory terms and conditions (RAND) with no payment could be considered.”

We request DIT to take a very firm stance and remove the FRAND/RAND sentence from this section because it is a huge anomaly in a section titled, “Mandatory Characteristics.” The entire sentence, “If such Standards are not found feasible then in the wider public interest, Fair, Reasonable and Non Discriminatory terms and conditions (FRAND) or Reasonable and Non Discriminatory terms and conditions (RAND) with no payment could be considered” should be moved to Section 4.3 that deals with “Non-availability of Open Standard which meets all Mandatory Characteristics.” We understand that in certain cases, some exceptions will have to be made. These exceptions can be handled through Section 4.3. Placing the exception in Section 4.1.2 conveys the impression that DIT is not firm in its resolve to guide the country towards open standards and therefore removing it from this section will go a long way in correcting that impression, without hampering DIT's flexibility in any way.

The Designated Body tasked with selecting standards must be selected transparently and with representation from a wide variety of stakeholders to prevent circumvention of the policy. This is a crucial area of interest to civil society, especially after the recent controversy around the OOXML standardisation process. The blatant manner in which international standards organizations were subverted, national standards organizations were stuffed with Gold and Premium partners of a proprietary software vendor and every single loophole in the standardization process brutally exploited, should serve as a cautionary tale. Given the disregard that some proprietary vendors have shown for the sovereignty of countries and for the long-term interests of users, any standard emanating from such proprietary vendor must be treated with extreme caution.
We request DIT to stand firm against vendors of proprietary standards and offer the whole-hearted support of Free Software Movement of India and its member Organizations in the effort to implement genuine open standards and free India from the clutches of proprietary standards.