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Should the Government Control Internet Standards?

One role of the government is to protect the country and make its citizens feel safe through policy and regulation. But in today’s digital era, policy making is moving to the people, and we are witnessing individual corporations – be they for profit or not – getting more involved in Internet standards.

A panel of industry experts convened at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco earlier this month, and moderated by ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick, discussed the issues surrounding Internet standards. We’ve written up our notes below and hope to begin a conversation about whether Internet standards should be administrated by private organizations or our leaders in the White House.

Standards and Government Intervention

Once upon a time, “back in the bad old days,” Kirkpatrick began, “the railways of the USA all had different track widths and as a result different companies couldn’t drive their trains everywhere. Once train track width was standardized, an entire new era of commerce began.”

It is interesting to note that it was Congress which finally intervened and decreed that the standard width of railway tracks would be 4-foot, eight and-a-half inches after experiencing problems transporting supplies during the Civil War. The upshot? A standardized railway system that not only offered national transportation, but provided more diverse business opportunities.

Clearly, identifying and working to standards is integral to growth and success.

Web Standards and the Importance of Interoperability

Despite many great minds working on standards in an attempt to bring unity to the Web, there are still major hurdles to overcome; the biggest of which, according to the panel is interoperability.

Eran Hammer-Lahav, the director of standards development at Yahoo! explained that when people visit a site, they expect it to work in the same fashion regardless of where they visit it from; home, work, mobile, Web. “If we want to build that type of Web, we have to interoperate with other companies and we have to do it in a way that is very inclusive,” he explained.

For Web designers and developers, cross-browser compatibility has been a long term issue. Each browser implements JavaScript, HTML, CSS etc. somewhat differently and this can result in a myriad of issues for the user; from barely noticeable visual differences to pages that break across browsers..

Although the W3C has created standards for the various formats in an attempt to ensure content is displayed consistently across all browsers, adhering to them is recommended only, not compulsory, and as a result many sites are still not cross-browser compatible. While this may not be a major concern for everyone, when it comes to business it’s essential.

David Rudin, an attorney in Microsoft‘s Interoperability Group, pointed out that if you want to sell your products to governments, some will expect certain interoperability standards to be met and if your organization can’t meet the expectations, your organization won’t be considered.

Interoperability and Online Identity

Six Apart‘s David Recordon, after explaining that Facebook has been in a dominant position for years in terms of both platform and mindshare, went on to say that Facebook Connect, the service that lets you take your online identity with you all over the Web, may be just what the industry needs.

While the December 2008 news from Facebook may have been welcomed by its users, others saw its proprietary code as a direct attack on OpenID as the two systems were not interoperable. Although Facebook formalized its support of the OpenID Foundation in February this year by officially joining the board, only time will tell whether this will be beneficial to the general Internet community.

“Whenever somebody controls the market, or somebody creates the market, others jump in and look at ways to compete,” added Hammer-Lahav.

But if competition is the key, it brings up an interesting question. Identification systems are not new. Microsoft rolled out Passport in 1999. Does this mean the industry has been competing for ten years, trying to develop a standard, only to return to the point where Microsoft was a decade ago? Have we gone full circle?

Interestingly, while the broader Internet community wasn’t very keen on the idea of Passport ten years ago because of concerns that Microsoft would control a crucial component of the Internet; today, it is embracing Facebook Connect even though it appears that many of the same issues apply.

“Essentially, Facebook is trying to replace all logins with their own, and control the creation, distribution and application of the social graph using their proprietary platform.” Chris Saad, co-founder of the Data Portability project wrote on his blog.

Additionally, with Facebook Connect, there are greater issues at stake; specifically, accountability. While Microsoft is held accountable by shareholders, Facebook, a private company, shares no such responsibility.

“The most scary part of this,” Saad wrote, “is that while Facebook is quietly and methodically building out this vision with massive partners, the standards community is busy squabbling about naming the open alternative. Is it Data Portability? Is the Open Web? is it Open Social? Is it Federated Identity?”

So Who Should be in Charge of Standards

With the Internet at such a crucial governance point, the question of regulation must be considered.

Despite the success of the transcontinental railroad, in the online world, a 1984 type scenario where our actions are governed by Big Brother doesn’t appeal; neither does the other extreme – total anarchy on the Internet – where people can do bad things without consequence.

So, does that mean there is a space in between the two for an alternative, and if so, should that alternative be the organizations that in the main work to their own agendas?

It’s a complicated situation and we’d love to know what you think. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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