September 18, 2020

Misleading Term of the Week: "Standard"

A “standard” is a technical specification that allows systems to work together to make themselves more useful. Most people say, for good reasons, that they are in favor of technical standards. But increasingly, we are seeing the term “standard” misapplied to things that are really regulations in disguise.

True standards strive to make systems more useful, by providing a voluntary set of rules that allow systems to understand each other. For example, a standard called RFC822 describes a standardized way to format email messages. If my email-sending software creates RFC822-compliant messages, and your email-receiving software understands RFC822-compliant messages, then you can read the email messages that I send you. Compliance with such a standard makes our software more functional.

Crucially, standards like RFC822 are voluntary and nonexclusive. Nobody forces any email-software vendor to comply with RFC822, and there is nothing to stop a vendor’s product from complying simultaneously with both RFC822 and other standards.

Lately we have seen the word “standard” misapplied. For example, the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG) calls its proposal a “standard,” though it is anything but. Unlike a real standard, BPDG is not voluntary. Unlike a real standard, it contains prohibitions rather than opportunities. Put the BPDG “standard” in front of experienced engineers, and they’ll tell you that it looks like a regulation, not like a standards document. BPDG is trying to make its restrictive regulations more palatable by wrapping them in the mantle of “standards.”

A more subtle misuse of “standard” arises in claims that we need to standardize on DRM technology. As I wrote previously:

In an attempt to sweep [the technical infeasibility of DRM] under the rug, the content industry has framed the issue cleverly as one of standardization. This presupposes that there is a menu of workable technologies, and the only issue is which of them to choose. They want us to ask which technology is best. But we should ask another question: Are any of these technologies workable in the first place? If not, then a standard for copy protection is as premature as a standard for teleportation.