The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is making history by considering a policy that would ensure the long-term integrity of our data. The importance of this process cannot be overstated. The implications of a policy that supports the development and implementation of open standards, if done right, would have substantial positive implications over the long run, here in the Commonwealth but also in other states and countries around the world. The Commonwealth’s leadership in this area could establish a model for others to follow, as it has so many times before on so many issues.
Several things are at stake in the move to such a policy:
* Interoperability: Creating and maintaining an open information ecosystem that achieves interoperability between computing environments, applications, and sources of data – whether created last year or 25 years from now – is the primary motivation for moving to an open standards policy.
* Access and Control: Ensuring that citizens and the state have access to our data and the ability to control our data long into the future, grounded in the knowledge that electronic data is becoming more and more important. It’s about the users — in the parlance of the states, the citizens — after all.
* Choice and Cost: Establishing a truly open standard can ensure that the Commonwealth, over the long-term, has the greatest range of technology choices and the lowest technology costs through competition. An open policy is not one that results in lock-in to a single technology vendor, nor one that precludes any vendor – which may be the most competitive – from participating.
* Innovation: Promoting the continued innovation in information technology, on Rte. 128, in university computer science labs, and in garages throughout the Commonwealth and beyond, supporting economic development in the process.
If there is any single concept that encompasses these themes, it is generativity, the policy prescription that my colleague Jonathan Zittrain calls for in his new paper, The Generative Internet.
A policy for the Commonwealth that supports open standards, if properly conceived and implemented, can help to achieve these goals. To get there, the legislature and the executive branch have a hard job.
That job is not to choose between competing technology vendors, circa 2005, in a fast-changing marketplace. The elephant in the room is the struggle between Microsoft on the one hand and IBM and Sun on the other. But that struggle is not, and cannot be, the real story on open standards policy. It’s essential to bear in mind the state’s proper role vis-a-vis this marketplace — a marketplace which may in fact establish, and re-establish, other open standards over time, all plausibly based off of the same concept of XML. Consider, for instance, the “web 2.0” version of this discussion and witness the dramatic changes in the syndicated technologies space — with RSS, Atom, OPML, the MetaWeblog API, and their ilk over the past few years — which, to all but a few visionaries, were unthinkable as possible “open document formats” a short while ago. The key is to ensure enough flexibility in the process so that those who know the technologies and the implications of any changes can help the state to adjust its approach on the fly as progress, inevitably, marches on — and such that citizens, or users, are not the ones left behind in the long-run.
Information technologies are increasingly important to our democracy. A policy that seeks to ensure a citizen’s access to information and a citizen’s ability to transform data with as few constraints by those who make technology as possible is a worthy one. These goals should not be pursued by the state without the active involvement of the technical community; the legislator needs to get to know the technology developer, and those who set technology standards, much more intimately if the state is going to play in this game.
The question before the Commonwealth today is not whether to strive for such lofty goals, but rather how to meet the challenge of crafting and implementing a policy that will in fact achieve them over the long run. If the Commonwealth gets this policy right, others will follow. If the Commonwealth gets this right, it will be good not only for our state’s economy but also for our democracy.
Summary of Remarks at An Open Forum on the Future of Electronic Data Formats for the Commonwealth, December 14, 2005 at the Massachusetts State House
John G. Palfrey, Jr.
Executive Director, Berkman Center for Internet & Society
Clinical Professor of Law, Harvard Law School