Digital Standardisation Tour

Summary Report 

Each month, the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP) organises a virtual tour connecting actors working on the same digital policy issue in Geneva. The series 12 Tours to Navigate Digital Geneva helps the Geneva community to navigate International Geneva by theme and by highlighting convergences.

In March 2021 we held the Digital Standardisation and Technology Tour

  • There is the need to develop a tool helping diplomats and the non-technical community to compare standards among the different standardisation organisations and connecting the dots among the activities of such organisations. 
  • It is important to keep the big picture in focus, to locate the actors, and the connections among them. The Geneva Digital Atlas makes an effort in this regard. We need to keep understanding the functions and values of standards as they evolve, and how they contribute to social and economic development through international cooperation and consensus.
  • Capacity building and training are needed to reduce the ‘lost-in -translation’ between standardisation and policy circles including diplomats and regulators. An innovative training approach, such as one referring to online gaming, could be developed for raising overall awareness about the impact of standardisaton processes on global governance and diplomacy.
  • Standardisation organisations are not policy-setting systems: they help to facilitate the work of policymakers and the harmonisation of current regulations.

‘In the era when many want to coordinate but only a few are fine to be coordinated, it is fascinating to see functional coordination in digital standardisation between IEC, ITU and ISO ’ pointed our Dr Jovan Kurbalija, director of DiploFoundation and head of the GIP.

More than 50% of the standards that enable online events to take place are discussed and adopted in Geneva. Is this estimate realistic?

Yes, in the sense that the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC),  the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) are all located in Geneva, and they cooperate closely through specific governance mechanisms. 

But, as Secretary-General of ISO Mr Sergio Mujica indicated, the geography of digital standardisation involve actors from all continents. The geography of digital standardisation is very diverse with an important role of Geneva in coordinating this global network. while these standards are not precisely set in Geneva, they are produced by organisations located in Geneva. (Joint) technical committees meet around the world and the standard-setting processes are very open: each member can propose and nominate experts. The standards adopted are the outcome of very inclusive and consensus-based discussions among those experts. 

So there is a complex and vast network of technical experts and communities worldwide that is coordinated by these three standards-setting organisations. How does this cooperation take place? 

The World Standards Cooperation (WSC) is the high-level cooperation framework among the ITU, ISO, and the IEC. General Secretary and CEO of the IEC Mr Philippe Metzger reminded that the IEC is a member-based organisation with regional offices; it’s headquarters, based in Geneva, coordinate these different stakeholders. The governance of standardisation has a complex geometry: the cooperation mechanisms involve Geneva, the numerous regional offices, and the local technical communities with a global span.

Cooperation between governments and the private sector is not new to the work of standardisation organisations. Chief of the Study Groups Department of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau Dr Bilel Jamoussi said that, since its creation, the ITU has built consensus among governments, the private sector and, more recently, academia, thus trying to find a balance among what is important for each community. He clarified that the interaction between the public and private sector is unique to the history and mandate of the ITU as the UN specialised agency for information and communication technologies. In particular, ITU’s Study Groups are venues to build the consensus that results in ITU standards or joint standards. One example is the joint video-coding standardisation work of ITU, ISO and IEC that has been awarded with two Primetime Emmy Awards, showing how Geneva-based organisations bring standards to the world.

Standardisation processes are often perceived, from an outsider perspective, as opaque or translucent, i.e. as not fully transparent. Has COVID-19 made discussions more inclusive and democratic? How can we address the gap between the openness of your organisations’ work and the perception of its transparency?

COVID-19 has indeed improved the situation in terms of transparency and access. For example, ISO has been operating in a fully virtual environment in the past year with an increase in accessibility to discussions, especially from developing countries. Connecting to an online meeting can be easier than travelling. However, having a fully virtual environment is not the solution: one thing is to connect to a meeting, another is to be physically present in consensus-building meetings

The speakers agreed that the pandemic has given us the chance to be inclusive. However, it is still important to be prepared to participate effectively in the debates. In the post-pandemic world, the set-up for standardisation processes will not be only a virtual one, but a hybrid (blended) one, therefore we need to ensure that least-developed countries can also participate meaningfully in discussions. This means that more stakeholders can be involved in the process. 

In the history of the IEC, for example, user groups have increasingly taken part in the discussion. 

In Geneva, member states participate in standardisation discussions often upon requests from their capitals. How can we reduce the ‘lost-in-translation’ elements in debates between the technical community, and the need for diplomats to understand the political dynamics behind them?

It is also crucial to agree on a common language to avoid confusion which is especially important when it comes to the latest technological developments which do not involve only the standardisation community (e.g. artificial intelligence and transportation).

The three organisations also function as counsellors, explaining standardisation processes to any newcomers as well as what the issues and stakeholders are. The Geneva-based secretariats of ISO and IEC also play this role.  

How do we manage conflicts and the asymmetry of powers among different stakeholders (e.g. the weight of the private sector), and achieve a genuine evidence-based, balanced, and fair process?

All speakers elaborated on the importance of the interplay between the national and international level. For example, ISO follows a so-called ‘double layer of consensus’: first among the technical experts who participate in the work of the ISO technical committees, and second, at the level of the ISO members who vote on draft standards.

ISO also supports the involvement of developing countries at two levels. First, meaningful participation of developing countries is set as a goal in the organisation’s strategy. Second, at the governance level, ISO has created a developing-countries committee whose chairperson is also a member of ISO’s board of directors.The IEC has an Affiliate Country Programme, which allows developing countries to participate in IEC work without the financial burden of membership and get free access to a number of IEC standards.

The ITU was in the media for new IP issues, and the role of different countries and actors in the standardisation discussions. How does the ITU manage to have inclusive discussions?

As reiterated in a recent article in the Financial Times, all ITU member states have an equal voice in the decision-making process (incidentally, the same is true in the IEC and ISO, where every member has a single vote). No single player can overtake the decision-making process which remains an inclusive platform and a bottom-up, contribution-driven and consensus-based process. ITU’s approval processes follow two tracks: around 90% of the proposals are reviewed with the ‘alternative’ approval or technical approval process, whereas around 10% follow a longer ‘traditional’ approval process as draft standards considered to have regulatory implications. Usually, cybersecurity, economic and related policy issues, and issues concerning international numbering resources are approved under this regulatory track.

The Digital Standardisation and Technology Tour roundtable discussion was followed by an exchange with the audience. 

More and more small enterprises develop new devices (especially in regard to the internet of things (IoT)), and they become, in security terms, the weakest link. How are ISO, the ITU, and the IEC addressing the interplay between standardisation and security/vulnerability?

Our speakers agreed that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) play a crucial role in innovation, and that they should have a voice in the standard-development process. In this regard, the ITU has reduced its membership fees for start-ups and SMEs to lower the financial barriers for entering the discussion. It is also important to have an inclusive platform for standardisation and open-source communities to work together on standards and reference implementations of standards.

The speakers also added that standards are often misunderstood as a ‘new set of regulations’ that go beyond national regulations. ‘Standards are voluntary by nature, and are an invitation to excellence,’ Mujica affirmed. When a standard is created, it represents an open invitation for companies and SMEs to develop compliant practices.

Standardisation organisations have played a crucial role in contributing to making many applications safe and secure. However, there are also limits on what they can achieve and what their mandate is. Metzger stated that finding the right balance between standardisation and innovation will always be a challenge. Standardisation that is too fast can hinder future innovation and when it is too slow it can hinder the adoption of innovation.

Are standards that impose a high bandwidth requirement too demanding on countries that have difficulties in pursuing connectivity?

Standards are designed to facilitate and make things work better. Equating a new digital standard to a higher bandwidth requirement is misleading. By supporting ‘backward compatibility, standards enable next-generation technologies to interwork with previous technology generations. This protects past investments while creating the confidence to continue investing in digital development. Standards are contributing to the attainment of sustainable development goals (SDGs). Global connectivity is a central challenge to achieve, and standardisation organisations make efforts to keep the development agenda as a point of reference.   

Standards lower the market entry barriers for developing countries and SMEs thus opening the playing field. An example is the launch of the first satellite in Tunisia which was built with standardised off-the-shelf components by an SME and will provide connectivity for many IoT devices. 

It was added that the work of other important organisations in Geneva is helping in setting standards in different policy fields. One example is the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the UN Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT) which help set of electronic business standards. For example, Recommendation No. 37 addressed a single submission portal to ‘streamlining border crossing and helping traders to access the international markets’. Another is  Recommendation No. 43 on sustainable procurement processes which tackles the trade-off between more responsible business practices while avoiding additional administrative burdens for SMEs trading across borders.    

Our next discussion is titled Digital Economy: Trade and Finance Tour which will take place on Wednesday, 21st April, at 11:00 CET (registration is open).