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To read comments to this article, go here
Malaysia Standards Says Most of Their Technical Concerns Unresolved at BRM; Fast Track Inappropriate - Updated
Tuesday, March 04 2008 @ 10:38 AM EST

Standards Malaysia has now issued a statement [PDF] regarding the BRM. The title says it all, "Malaysian delegation at the ISO meeting in Geneva (25 – 29 Feb ’08) finds the technical issues in the draft standard OOXML unresolved satisfactorily".

They were there. And they contradict the stories being put out by those in charge and by Microsoft. They did *not* have the opportunity to have their concerns addressed totally. Malaysia voted to disapprove the undiscussed bulk dispositions, although they had earlier voted to approve some dispositions that were discussed. Most of their concerns were never discussed:

"Malaysia had submitted 23 comments and more than 70% of them were not addressed satisfactorily by Ecma's proposed dispositions. We intended to resolve these technical issues at the BRM, but we could only raise 2 concerns due to the time constraints imposed," Fadilah said.

The press release says that after three days of trying, it became clear that there was insufficient time to address all the dispositions, and so the idea was presented to just vote on items without discussion:

"Malaysia decided to vote 'Disapprove' to these undiscussed issues," Fadilah elaborated, "The limitation of the BRM process clearly showed that such a task of approving this draft standard does not fit in the Fast Track process employed by Ecma International. Malaysia and other country delegations worked very hard which extended into evenings after the BRM sessions. All the technical experts from diverse backgrounds, including from Microsoft, the original proposer of the Draft, put their heads together to fix the specification. Malaysia approved the counter proposals by many National Bodies which were discussed during the BRM. Unfortunately there were just far too many to fix within the given time."

I don't think it took three days to figure out that there was insufficient time to discuss all the dispositions. I think the evidence indicates that it was anticipated and planned for. To fully comprehend the story, you need to read the rules. Here's the page where you can find the rules regarding the Fast Track process. The one that I think is the right one is ISO/IEC JTC 1 Directives, 5th Edition, Version 3.0. When I read them, I read that only P-members can vote, and I also read that voting should ideally never happen at a BRM, that the preferred method is discussion leading to consensus. Only if consensus can't be reached is voting contemplated, and then only P-members vote. If no consensus is possible, the convenor terminates the Fast Track process. The P-members didn't reach consensus on the undiscussed dispositions. Yet, we do not see a shut down. What's up with that? And now what? I looked into the appeals process, and I'll show you what I found.

Oddly, all of the Directives on that page are marked modified on August 27, 2007, just prior to the September vote on OOXML. I don't know why. But, as I'll show you, the one I believe is the one that governs, dated April of 2007, setting forth the appropriate procedures, is this one, JTC001-N-8557 Ed5V3 [PDF]. The parts that were new, edited from prior versions, are in purple. If you look at pages 61 onward, about Fast Tracking, it's all in purple, which means the process was edited after Microsoft began its efforts via Ecma to Fast Track OOXML in 2005, although I haven't yet seen anything leap out as being significantly changed. You may notice things I don't, of course, as we work as a group. I'm just telling you what I am noticing, but you can amplify.

On page 26, this Directive tells us who is responsible for administration of the technical work, the Information Technology Task Force, or ITTF:

4.1.1 Information Technology Task Force (ITTF)

4.1.1 The ITTF is responsible for the day-to-day planning and coordination of the technical work of JTC 1 relative to IED and ISO, and supervises the application of the ISO and IEC Statutes and Rules of Procedure. The ITTF shall satisfy itself that particular investigations are followed up and that the time limits are complied with. To be in a position to keep Councils and NBs informed as to the technical work envisaged, in progress and completed, the ITTF must always be fully informed regarding the work of JTC 1.

4.1.2. The ITTF shall advise the JTC 1 Secretariats and Secretaries on any point of procedure, assist in the technical coordination and harmonisation of work and in seeking solutions to any problems which have not been resolved between JTC 1 and other TCs of ISO and IEC directly. If necessary, the ITTF may convene ad hoc technical coordination meetings.

So the buck stops there. And if you were the convenor of the BRM regarding OOXML, that's logically who you'd turn to for direction if you suspected that there would be insufficient time to address thousands of comments at an upcoming Fast Track BRM. Indeed, that appears to be precisely what happened. On January 24, 2008, for example, Brown wrote this on his blog:

As the BRM nears... I have been busy working with ISO/IEC officials to make sure the meeting mechanisms are sufficient for the enormity of the task we face...

I think it's very clear looking back that it was realized in advanced that there would be insufficient time to discuss all the proposed dispositions. If you read Brown's blog on January 29, 2008, you'll see that he laid out in advance that he was expecting the "overwhelming majority of meeting resolutions" to be "decided by voting (as allowed for by the JTC 1 Directives)":

1,000 responses in 35 hours?

Given the five day time limit of the BRM, a frequently asked question is: how can 1,000 issues be addressed in the time, even if NBs already know what their position is? The answer, I think, must lie in paper voting. I am sure that the overwhelming majority of meeting resolutions will be decided by voting (as allowed for by the JTC 1 Directives), and delegations will be given lengthy voting papers allowing them to approve, abstain, or disapprove for any proposed resolution. The voting papers are likely to have three kinds of proposed resolution listed on them:

* Verbatim responses from Ecma's proposed disposition of comments (as contained in the document published by SC 34 as N 980)
* Ecma responses that have been amended by the BRM
* Fresh responses arising from BRM discussion

for the latter two types, consensus might well be reached during in-session discussion, in which case there is obviously no need to put the proposed resolution to the additional test of a redundant vote.

Note who Brown said would be allowed to participate in such a vote:

Now, paper balloting follows normal JTC 1 in-meeting rules:
In a meeting, except as otherwise specified in these directives, questions are decided by a majority of the votes cast at the meeting by P-members expressing either approval or disapproval. (9.1.4)

Tied votes will be assumed not to have passed (unless they get the “further discussion” the Directives require during the BRM, which is unlikely).

Is that what he is saying now about O-members? Take a look at what he posted on Andy Updegrove's blog:

On the particular questions about in-meeting voting I can tell you:
* Yes, it was a good idea to take votes (congratulations to the BRM on wisely choosing this route)

* Yes, it was within my, and the meeting's, powers to allow it

* Yes, what happened was fully in accord with the JTC 1 Directives (O-member voting and all)

OBVIOUSLY (given the red hot controversy here) voting procedure was discussed in minute detail, and decided, in consultation with ITTF before the BRM started.

That isn't at all what Malaysia says happened. Here's their version:

After 3 days, it was apparent that there would be no time to review all the items within the remaining 2 days on all substantial concerns against the Ecma standard. The 32 National Bodies, including Malaysia, were then requested to submit a vote on all the items which were not discussed at the BRM and told to vote on Ecma's remaining dispositions to 'Approve,' 'Disapprove' or 'Abstain.'

So the pretense that the idea to vote in bulk was invented at the BRM by the NBs on the spot and unanimously approved there is just that. Malaysia says they were told what to do.

Now, if we subtract the O-members' votes -- apparently inappropriately counted, unless someone can point me to some Directive, as opposed to a FAQ, that contradicts the words I'm reading in the Directive I believe is the operative one, and which Brown himself so indicated -- it's 4 to 4, with the rest abstaining. That's a tie, which I read Brown's words to indicate means it has not passed and the process should be shut down and gotten off the Fast Track. But what does this Brown article on maintenance mode mean?

There is little to be gained dwelling in areas where everyone is in agreement, and so I expect the meeting to move quickly through batches of comments which have straightforward acceptance. This will leave time for review of the more contentious responses. Inevitably, there is likely to be insufficient time to review all comments in detail – in this case, some will be held until later in the BRM; others will be deferred to maintenance (should the DIS get approved).

Deferred to maintenance mode? Uh oh. Ecma earlier suggested this, and now it has put out a press release about the BRM too, in which it mentions maintenance mode:

Several of the issues which will not be reflected into the final DIS text have been deferred to consideration during the maintenance phase, which, if the standard is approved would be managed by ISO/IEC JTC 1 with the active collaboration of Ecma International.

Eek. Which issues are these? Maintenance mode is where we trust Microsoft to really fix it? Based on what history? It seems to me that while the rules clearly give options to shut the Fast Track process down should it not work out, no one in charge of running this show ever in real life contemplated such, and instead at every turn Microsoft was the beneficiary of rules being ignored, bent, or selectively chosen to make sure it remained on track, worthy or not.

For example, by defining carefully and very strictly what could and could not be discussed at the BRM, it was possible to force attendees to focus on certain small trees, while forbidding any discussion of the larger forest, leaving them more or less in a similar state as the well-meaning character in the old movie, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" -- diligently trying to do really well what shouldn't be done in the first place.

Here's part of what Brown said wouldn't be allowed to be discussed, and perhaps someone can point me to where the Directive, as opposed to the interpretive FAQ, says what he's saying:

The FAQ already spells out some topics which are out-of-scope, and in addition the following should be noted:
* the JTC 1 Directives make clear that comments NBs may have after 2 September are out-of-scope: “comments received after the normal voting period will not be taken into account, except that they will be submitted to the appropriate SC Secretariat for consideration at the time of the next review of the IS in question” (13.6)

* the behaviour and conformance level of any applications which claim to implement DIS 29500 is irrelevant to the standardisation process. ISO/IEC standards have to be complete in themselves without reference to applications, to avoid the possibility of difference (and thus divided authority) between the text itself and any so-called “reference” implementation. In other words, MS Office will not be discussed.

So the FAQ said certain things. But do the Directives? Where? So, as I read it, interpretations of what would be permitted all tilted away from a shut down of the Fast Track process for OOXML, whereas many of the attendees who have spoken out seem to feel this was the central issue. Country comments on that point were numerous as well. There was a loud chorus saying that there wasn't time to do the job properly on the Fast Track, and indeed, so it proved to be. Comments regarding the legal worries were deemed out of order too. Those opposed to a bulk vote -- where were they allowed to register their opposition? What's the rule on that? Please point us to the Directive. So, when exactly will those comments ruled out of order for the BRM be discussed? Evidently never, judging from Brown's blog entry of July 14, 2007, "Non-technical Comments Are Ignored". Why, then, did countries bother to comment at all, since no one intended to pay any attention? Or rather Brown intended not to pay attention. Yet, he links to this document that said that NBs could comment on nontechnical matters. But then what happens? What is the procedure to get them discussed and resolved, if not at the BRM? They seem to be falling into a black hole.

Incidentally, Brown references his guiding document, and it's the same one I'm using in this article, the one dated April 5, 2007:

I should first say that the opinions below represent my own understanding of the onward standardisation process, and that much of this process is new and untested for this kind of standard. That said, I don't know of any better readings than the one I am presenting, which has been reached after a careful reading of the JTC 1 Directives [PDF] and discussion with ISO national body participants from a number of countries.

Yet, that document says that only P-members can vote, by my reading. It's possible I missed something, so if anyone sees an allowance for O-members to vote, can you sing out? O stands for "observer", by the way. So what happened? And what happens now?

It's interesting to look at some of the other early articles about OOXML on Brown's blog. For example, here's one dated June 2, 2006:

With OOXML predicted to weigh in as a behemoth 7,000 page standard the danger that OOXML will be inadequately scrutinised is greater still.

It is this unseemly haste that most concerned me and my fellow UK delegates during this meeting. Although arguably the trend has already been set by some other standards groups, it is ultimately in nobody's interest if the standardisation process becomes devalued to the point where it is delivering technology standards which are done quickly, but which don't provide a solid and useful basis for implementers and users.

Unseemly haste indeed. That is precisely what Malaysia and others are complaining about. What is the remedy? How about getting this monster off the Fast Track and giving it the time it needs to get it right? Here's another Brown entry, from March 22, 2007, reporting on the ISO SC34 meetings in Oslo :

To the beautiful city of Oslo to attend the first SC 34 meeting of the year, and in particular to progress DSDL. SC34 suddenly has a lot of new P member countries ('participating member' countries) sending representatives, and I am interested to note the majority of their representatives are, as individuals, also Microsoft employees.

Interestingly, on August 11, 2007, he wrote about his appointment as convenor, appointed by the SC 34 secretariat:

I have been appointed by the SC 34 secretariat as the convenor of the up-coming Ballot Resolution Meeting on OOXML (should it happen). As with UK standardisation I am sure the key to success will be an ultra-conscientious application of the rules. I have made the JTC 1 Directives my constant companion and am working with SC 34 colleagues to make sure my understanding of them is complete.

I am certainly glad for all efforts to get it right, but some explanation is needed, I think, regarding the O-members voting. Anyway, it isn't just the representatives of some P-member countries that are Microsoft employees. If you recall this photograph of Jean Paoli handing over the initial draft of OOXML to Ecma, the caption reminds us that the Co-Chairs of TC45 are Microsoft folk:

Ecma Secretary General Jan van den Beld (pictured to the left) receives initial draft of office document standard from Jean Paoli, Microsoft’s Sr. Director of XML Architecture - Adam Farquhar, head of e-Architecture for the British Library is seen on the right.

During the first meeting Jean Paoli, Sr. Director of XML Architecture for Microsoft and co-creator of the W3C XML standard, and Isabelle Valet-Harper, Sr. Program Manager for Standards Strategy and Microsoft’s primary representative to Ecma, were appointed Co-Chairs of TC45. Adam Farquhar, head of e-Architecture for the British Library, was appointed Vice Chair.

But let's look at the Directive we began with again, and turn with me please to page 48, where it talks about who can vote, so we get it firmly established:

9 Voting

9.1 General

9.1.1 All P-members have an obligation to vote (see 3.1). ... Each P-member has one vote...Votes by P-members in attendance may be cast only by the head of the delegation or an individual designated by the head of the delegation....

9.1.3 The Chairman has no vote and questions on which the vote is equally divided shall be subject to further discussion.

9.1.4 In a meeting, except as otherwise specified in these directives, questions are decided by a majority of the votes cast at the meeting by P-members expressing either approval or disapproval....

9.1.10 At all levels of voting, if more than 50% of the P-members have not voted, the vote will have failed....

9.6 FDIS/DIS/FDAM/DAM/FDISP Approval Criteria

For a FDIS/DIS/FDAM/DAM/FDISP to be approved, the count taken by ITTF shall meet the following criteria:

  • At least two-thirds of the P-members voting shall have approved;
  • Not more than one-quarter of the total number of votes cast are negative.
A P-member which has given appropriate notification that it will abstain from participation in specific work items (see 3.1.2) shall not be counted as a P-member when counting votes for drafts relating to such items.

Abstentions are excluded from the count....

9.8 Votes on Fast-track DISs

The period for fast-track DIS (or DAM) voting shall be six months, consisting of a 30-day JTC 1 National Body revieew period followed by a five-month ballot period. NBs may reply in one of the following ways:

  • Approval of the technical content of the DIS as presented (editorial or other comments may be appended);
  • Disapproval of the DIS (of DAM) for technical reasons to be stated, with proposals for changed that would make the document acceptable (acceptance of these proposals shall be referred to the NB concerned for confirmation that the vote can be changed to approval);
  • Abstention (see 9.1.2).

    (Note: Conditional approval should be submitted as a disapproval vote.)

    The criteria for approval are given in 9.6. If these criteria are not met initially, but are subsequently met at the conclusion of ballot resolution in accordance with 13.0, the DIS (or DAM) is approved....

Is that not clear? You'll find 13.0 beginning on page 61, by the way. Note that 13.8 says that efforts should be made to reach consensus at a BRM, but if that is not possible, "the vote of the NBs will be taken according to normal JTC 1 procedures." I believe that is saying only P-members can vote. I read 13.9, referencing 9.6, as clearly so stating. How about you?

Now all this matters, as I understand it, because if O-members votes count, then one might argue that we all move along to the next steps, as outlined on page 63 in 13.9-14; but if O-member votes don't count, then 13.10 says this is what should happen:

If it is impossible to agree to a text meeting the above requirements, the proposal has failed and the procedure is terminated.

P-members were split, 4 to 4. By my reading, that should mean the Fast Track procedure is over. Not that anyone seems to be following the rules I'm reading in this Directive.

Now it's certainly possible that there is some other document that I haven't found yet. But this is the one Brown said he was trying to follow. I don't say one word about motives because I've never met him. I don't know. But did he get it right? If he was asking an entity top-heavy with Microsoft employees, might that explain things? On the other hand, I may be misunderstanding. It's all very complex. And that is ideal for tilting a process, actually, if you think about it. Did anyone at the BRM raise the question about O-members voting? Were the rules adequately explained at the meeting so everyone knew what was allowed and what was not? Or just posted to a blog? If there is audio of the meeting, as Red Hat's General Counsel Michael Cunningham wrote yesterday he hears there was, perhaps that can establish everything with greater clarity. I find it a little worrisome that this April 2007 Directive, ISO/IEC JTC 1 Directives, 5th Edition, Version 3.0", on page 1, tells us that changes to the documents from prior versions are indicated in purple and pages 61 to 63, about "Fast Track Processing", are entirely in purple.

There is an appeal process, but it's easily tilted too, to my eyes, if one assumes an agenda. Here's how it works according to the same Directive:

11.1.1 NBs have the right of appeal
  • To JTC 1 on a decision of an SC;
  • To TMB/SMB on a decision of JTC 1;
  • To the Councils on a decision of the TMB/SMB

Appeals shall be made within two months after receipt by the P-members of the report of JTC 1 or SC on the relevant meeting or vote by correspondence. The decision of the Councils on any case of appeal is final.

111.1.2 A P-member of JTC 1 or an SC may appeal against any action, or inaction, on the part of the JTC 1 or an SC when the P-member considers that such action or inaction is:

  • Not in accordance with these directives; or
  • NOt in the best interests of international trade and commerce, or such publilc factors as safety, health or environment

11.1.3 Matters under appeal may be either technical or administrative in nature. Appeals on decisions concerning NPs, CDs and DISs are only eligible for consideration if:

  • Questions of principle are involved.
  • The contents of a draft may be detrimental to the reputation or IEC or ISO; or
  • The point giving rise to objection was not known to JTC 1 or SC during earlier discussions.

I read that as saying that you can appeal, but they will ignore you if they feel like it. All they need to do is discuss a matter and say they already know about it. No? Yet, ISO's reputation certainly is at stake. I think a simple look at media accounts of what has been happening in the OOXML Fast Track, and the EU Commission's decision to investigate, ought to tell them that if there is an appeal, which I consider very possible, they should take it seriously.

Update: Alex Brown has edited the article from January in which he had indicated that only P members could vote and it would be by majority. It now reads like this:

Now, paper balloting follows normal JTC 1 in-meeting rules:
In a meeting, except as otherwise specified in these directives, questions are decided by a majority of the votes cast at the meeting by P-members expressing either approval or disapproval. (9.1.4)

[Update 2008-03-06. This was the wrong clause. In-meeting Fast Track BRM voting is for resolving the comments of a constituency determined by the combined voting procedure (O-members + P-members) as per the JTC 1 Directives 9.5, and that is the understanding of the "normal JTC 1 procedures" in 13.8.]

Here's 9.5:

9.5 Combined Voting Procedure

The voting procedure which uses a simultaneous voting (one vote per country) by the P-members to JTC 1 and by all ISO member bodies and IEC national committees on a letter ballot is called the combined voting procedure. This procedure shall be used on FDISs, DISs, FDAMs, DAMs and FDISPs.

I don't think that is the correct clause for BRMs, because of the wording of 9.7, but even if it was, it doesn't change the wording of 9.6, which would mean to my understanding that you need at least two-thirds of the P-members voting approving and not more than one-quarter of the total votes cast negative. Also, I note 9.5 is all in purple. Naturally.

Here is the complete Malaysia press release:

*************************************

4 MARCH 2008

PRESS RELEASE

Malaysian delegation at the ISO meeting in Geneva (25 – 29 Feb '08) finds the technical issues in the draft standard OOXML unresolved satisfactorily

Cyberjaya, 4 March 2008 - Malaysia's Department of Standards (STANDARDS MALAYSIA) recently found the Draft ISO standard, ISO/IEC DIS 29500: Office Open XML (OOXML) specification for electronic document formats, had the majority of its technical issues still not addressed satisfactorily.

STANDARDS MALAYSIA sent a delegation to attend the "Ballot Resolution Meeting" (BRM) in Geneva, Switzerland where they deliberated on OOXML submitted by Ecma International, a standards setting organization.

Malaysia voted to 'Disapprove' by default on Ecma's dispositions due to the quality of their technical responses during the week. Malaysia approved on certain resolutions, which were found appropriate and discussed during the BRM, but this was by far in the minority. There have been structural changes and important contributions to the Draft by other National Bodies which alter the Draft significantly. Malaysia will review these changes before making a decision on its final vote by end March 2008.

Puan Fadilah Baharin, Director General of STANDARDS MALAYSIA who was in Geneva to oversee the Malaysian delegates said, "The Malaysian delegation actively participated in the BRM, including making good technical suggestions on how to improve the proposed standard. We were impressed with the commitment and professionalism shown by all the technical experts represented by the various National Bodies."

The original specification had more than 6,000 pages, an unprecedented volume in ISO for the Fast Track process.

At a previous stage of the process, after a 5-month ballot period ending on 2 September 2007, the drafted ISO standard failed to get the required vote from participating countries, failing 2 of the 3 criteria for approval. This process also resulted in more than 1,000 unique comments from the countries.

On 14 January 2008, Ecma International provided proposed dispositions to these comments which were discussed at the BRM.

The meeting was scheduled for 5 days from 25 to 29 February in accordance to ISO/IEC "Fast Track" rules. The time of deliberation is fixed and will not be adjusted according to the volume of comments. This is the limitation imposed due to the Fast Track process.

"Malaysia had submitted 23 comments and more than 70% of them were not addressed satisfactorily by Ecma's proposed dispositions. We intended to resolve these technical issues at the BRM, but we could only raise 2 concerns due to the time constraints imposed," Fadilah said.

After 3 days, it was apparent that there would be no time to review all the items within the remaining 2 days on all substantial concerns against the Ecma standard. The 32 National Bodies, including Malaysia, were then requested to submit a vote on all the items which were not discussed at the BRM and told to vote on Ecma's remaining dispositions to 'Approve,' 'Disapprove' or 'Abstain.'

"Malaysia decided to vote 'Disapprove' to these undiscussed issues," Fadilah elaborated, "The limitation of the BRM process clearly showed that such a task of approving this draft standard does not fit in the Fast Track process employed by Ecma International. Malaysia and other country delegations worked very hard which extended into evenings after the BRM sessions. All the technical experts from diverse backgrounds, including from Microsoft, the original proposer of the Draft, put their heads together to fix the specification. Malaysia approved the counter proposals by many National Bodies which were discussed during the BRM. Unfortunately there were just far too many to fix within the given time."

Last year, many countries raised concerns against the appropriateness of the voluminous OOXML draft standard submitted by the Ecma International to ISO for a Fast Track process. To date, our observation to these concerns have yet to be addressed better after the BRM. Malaysia's concern is currently being shared greatly by many other National Bodies from Asia including India, China and Korea; as well as from the US and Canada.

The process now entails discussion within the 87 'P' and 'O' countries who first voted on 2 September 2007, for them to evaluate the instructions from the BRM and return to ISO a final vote whether to approve OOXML as an ISO standard, by 30 March 2008.

STANDARDS MALAYSIA will convene a SIRIM Technical Committee meeting soon to decide Malaysia's final vote on the quality of OOXML as an ISO/IEC standard.


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