“Trust Us” is not a Good Model for Opening Specifications

I don't subscribe to the school of thought that assign labels to corporations such as 'good' or 'evil'. A good company gives value back to its shareholders. A bad company takes value away from its shareholders. An 'evil' company is a label used by the competition, trying to assign moral values reserved for people to legal entities.

While people working for a company can and many times do evil things, that often changes with time as people move out and the company changes its direction. 70 years ago, IBM supported the Nazis… but it was about the people running it at that time and not something about its mission.

Over the past year I have encountered a few cases where companies took internal specifications and offered them to the community as the basis for some future open specification or standard. Nokia's URIQA proposal, Google's Wave protocol, and Opera's Scope protocol are three such examples. But while Google released their proposal under clear IP terms, Nokia and Opera simply provided a copyright statement.

There is nothing new with the approach taken by Nokia and Opera. The proposition of "we will give this for free if adopted as a standard" is all too common. But it doesn't really work. Why should I spend any time on reviewing and investing in something I have no assurances I will have access to? The way intellectual property (IP) laws is structured, at least in the US, makes interacting with such proposals a liability, unless I know what the intellectual property rights (IPR) policy is.

At the end of the day, companies need to make their shareholders happy, and considering what a company is – a legal construct – the shareholders always win (or sue). So while I have no reason to think that Nokia or Opera will change course on this today, I must be prepared for the possibility that they might tomorrow.

This is in no way an attack of Opera or Nokia specifically. I have absolutely no reason to believe that the individuals working there will try and move the company in that direction (with regard to these two proposals) – especially Opera which has a history of openness. But it does present me with a useful test case for making my point.

There is always an implied "threat" in this approach because it doesn't answer what will happen if a standard adopts half the proposal, making the Opera product, for example, incompatible with the final specification.

What I want to see happen is for companies to put such document under clear IP terms right form the start. The web community is not likely to take any one company's specification and make it how the web works. This means any such protocol is an invitation for dialog. Without clear IP terms, that dialog is too risky and skewed in one direction.

The Open Web Foundation 'Final Specification Agreement' will provide one such document companies can use.

5 thoughts on ““Trust Us” is not a Good Model for Opening Specifications

  1. This is tangential and I apologize for possibly distracting, but here goes:
    I agree that calling Opera or Nokia or any technology company ‘evil’ for making less-than-Open policy decisions is a bit histrionic, but I disagree that there’s any significant differentiation to be made between whether a corporation is inherently evil or is doing evil. It ultimately doesn’t matter what they are, it matters what they do, and in the cases of companies that truly are evil in what they do, such as Monsanto, or Smithfield Foods, or Union Carbide, I worry that some of your operating theories (such as ‘it’s not the company, it’s the people’, and ‘a good company does whats best for its shareholders [implied: profits]’ etc.) serve as huge enablers for the Banality of Evil principle. I don’t think you should be afraid or apprehensive about calling a company evil, or at the very least wrong-headed. Doing otherwise really just serves to reinforce the duality of corporation-as-person and corporation-as-abstraction-of-liability.
    (For reference:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto_Company
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smithfield_Foods
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhopal_disaster)

  2. You can call a group of people evil, but a corporation is a legal entity with the sole purpose of increasing the value of its shareholders. There is no moral standard other then the corporate laws of the country where the corporation operate. Corporate actions are either legal or illegal but they are not evil. Action of corporate officers may be evil, but again, that is completely subjective.
    Expecting a corporation to do anything other than maximize its profits it silly. Fortunately, the market generally prefers products from companies with “good” officers.

  3. Ugh, sorry, having trouble with comments.
    A corporation *is* a group of people, so the issue of legal liability doesn’t seem absolved in the case of corporations. It seems like an odd contortion to say that a corporation, with the additional rights usually reserved for people that it posseses, is somehow less capable of being evil rather than moreso. And really, trying to draw lines between ‘a group of people’ and the banner under which they’re unified into a group seems a bit specious. Corporations don’t exist outside of time and space. If the contents of their actions can be described as evil then that makes them evil. If you feel that the lack of personhood makes this impossible then I agree on principle, but unfortunately we live in a country whose legal structure provides limited personhood to corporations, and so within that paradigm then they’re every bit as capable of evil as anyone else.

  4. Additionally, laws are not a moral standard, they’re merely an expression of a moral standard, so the corporate laws of the country where a corporation operates cannot be the ‘moral standard’ by which corporations are held to. This is supported anecdotally by the incidents and companies I cited above – Monsanto’s practices are perfectly legal, but are they ethical? Of course not. Smithfield’s pink pig-shit lagoons are also legal, but are they ethically defensible given the damage they do to the environment and neighboring communities? Absolutely not.
    It is due to a flawed set of business-friendly laws (both domestic and international) that these things are allowed to happen, and using the “well, they’re just doing what’s legal, blame the courts” is a scapegoat because it relieves corporations of agency for their own actions. While this is convenient for free market fetishists, it’s also a bit circular.

  5. Is this not an issue of law letting us down? Are we not supposed to fight for ethical laws? The whole idea of a universal moral doctrine is a fallacy. Laws are the closest thing we have to them.
    However, if you have a personal moral issue with a company, that is not a legal one, then there are ways to change any company’s actions. The most obvious way to affect a company is to affect the controlling shareholders negatively, making them change the direction of the company. Economics is the science of incentives. Find an incentive that will make them change. This normally means hurting their pockets. Ethics by coercion or lobbying.
    What worries me is that whose ethics are we talking about? Are we talking about the religious right, the communist left, the vegetarian, the oil producer, the NRA? Wrong is not wrong, but wrong for someone.

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