Why are ISO standards not published in the public domain?

ISO foundersLondon, 1946

International Organization for Standardization established in 1946 to issue international standards. The first of these was the very name of the organization, which sounds the same in all languages ​​of the world: ISO.

From road safety and toys to sustainable medical packaging, ISO standards help make the world a safer place. But there is a question: why are all the standards not made available for free, although this knowledge is necessary and useful for the general progress of mankind?

Some IT representatives point out that this practice is not the most efficient for the industry. Tim Sweeney
He speaksthat the value of standards lies in their adoption. Paid access to documents prevents the general adoption of standards, “making it impractical for millions of amateur programmers to access them and even understand what the standard is.”

According to Sweeney, the value of these standards to society is several orders of magnitude higher than the amount that ISO earns from selling electronic and paper copies. For example, take the ISO C++ standard. He suggests that a thousand copies of this document were sold for about $200. Overall, the organization could earn about $200,000, but the lack of an open standard is hindering the growth of a segment of the technology industry with a turnover of hundreds of billions of dollars, Tim said.

According to report for 2021, ISO and its national affiliates earned CHF 20.1 million from sales of publications and royalties, as well as CHF 21.4 million from membership fees. Two approximately identical income items.

Throughout its existence, ISO has adopted 24,121 standards, mainly in the field of IT, graphics and photography. Here are some of popular:

People’s Initiative

Posted about two years ago

open letter

(petition) for all ISO standards to be published in the public domain.

The authors note that ISO’s open standards policy has tightened:

  • New editions of standards that were previously available for free are no longer freely available (we are talking about the so-called Publicly Available Standards, PAS). At the same time, participants in open source projects are likely to use free (outdated) versions of the standard, which can cause compatibility problems.
  • Technical Reports (TRs) have recently been prohibited from being published free of charge under any circumstances, as they are no longer considered standards. Despite the fact that specialists took part in the preparation of some PRs and standards, assuming their future public availability.
  • ISO is pressuring other standards organizations with which it collaborates that have a public standards policy (such as ITU-T) to change their policies to remove collaborative documents from the public domain free of charge.

Thus, the adoption of new standards by a wide audience is difficult, and their quality may suffer. As you know, it is easier to find errors in an open source code than in a closed one. If we extend the analogy to standards, then open standards will also have fewer defects. The method really works, as evidenced by the success of the Open Source and Open Access movements (Open Data).

According to the authors of the document, the rejection of transparency reduces the credibility of the standards. They propose to introduce free access to all documents, and to compensate for the shortfall in income by membership fees of the organization’s members.

Anyone can sign the petition by editing document Google Docs. Among the signatories are dozens of well-known developers and experts, including experts from the standards development committees ISO / IEC, W3C, IETF, and so on.

Despite all the shortcomings of the paid model, ISO standards have a serious status, including in the field of information security. Recently, GlobalSign received two more certificates:

  • ISO 27701:2019 – Privacy Management Standard (PIMS);
  • ISO 27017:2015 is a cloud security standard.

Two new certificates are attached to the previously received ones. A year ago, GlobalSign was one of the first CAs in the world to receive ISO 27001 (Information Security Management) and ISO 22301 (Business Continuity Management) certification.

The situation with paid standards is somewhat similar to the situation with scientific publishing houses, which also restrict public access to scientific publications. At first glance, this seems wrong, but the system works. Science moves forward and scientific journals maintain credibility through careful selection of publications, which would be difficult without professional editorial staff (requiring funding).

A similar picture is in the case of ISO. Like scientific publications, international standards really make the world a better place. Open publishing is the standard, basic, and well-understood model by which the W3C, IETF, and other technology standards committees operate. Secrecy is of no use to anyone here.

On the other hand, the purchase of ISO documents can be seen as voluntary donations from industry representatives who want to support the organization.

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