On November 12, in a very progressive and sound move, the Union Ministry of Communication and Information Technology notified the National Policy on Open Standards in e-governance

An Indian case study of how open standards can make an impact on the domestic technology industry and promote innovation, by offering a level-playing field for technology companies — both big and small — is the Smart Card Operating System for Transport Applications (SCOSTA).

SCOSTA was a standard developed for smart card-based driving licences and transport-related documentation by different State governments. It was developed by the National Informatics Centre in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. Despite attempts by proprietary lobbies to make the body opt for a proprietary standard, the NIC and academics went ahead and developed an open standards, one that comprised technological specifications that were entirely royalty-free, and put up the specifications on their website. By doing so, they made a huge impact on the entire market.

The number of vendors providing cards and card readers shot up. Instead of four foreign companies that were involved in making smart cards earlier, more than a dozen Indian companies entered the market and bid competitively for projects in this sector. Obviously, intellectual property right rents dropped dramatically (since the standard opted for royalty-free specifications) and the market price of a card fell from Rs. 300 to Rs. 30. This case study was published in a United Nations Development Programme report on e-government interoperability.

This example is extremely relevant today. For, on November 12, in a very progressive and sound move, the Union Ministry of Communication and Information Technology notified the National Policy on Open Standards in e-governance. This policy mandates the formulation of a single and royalty-free standard in each technological domain involving government e-processes. Given that funds worth crores have been earmarked for several massive e-governance projects (27 mission projects under the National e-governance Plan), including the government's ambitious Aadhaar project that seeks to create a database of its citizens, the stakes are high. A policy of this nature at this juncture is extremely critical, both for the government and for the domestic technology industry.

The implications of this policy, if implemented, are two-fold. Firstly, it will protect government data by providing for interoperability between various e-governance applications, avoiding any form of vendor lock-in and allowing development of cost-effective applications without getting caught in the tangled web of intellectual property right regimes. Secondly, it will foster an ecosystem of technological innovation by offering a level playing field. Smaller and home-grown technology firms, that hitherto could not afford to participate in several government technological processes as they cannot compete with larger firms that can afford to pay royalties for various proprietary standards (or specifications), can now enter the market. This will make the market for this more competitive and also help drive down costs significantly for the government. Besides the SCOSTA, another example of how open standards can drive innovation and include more participation in the growth of a technological domain is, of course, the Internet which was built on several open standards.

The policy is remarkably clear in its reading of what an open technological standard is. It states that a single standards must be chosen in each technological domain. The policy specifies that the specifications of the standards must be accessible unconditionally and should be available on royalty-free licensing terms (associated patents and extensions included) in perpetuity. Further, the policy states that the open standards must be one that is evolved by a non-profit body. The policy is clear on how to deal with legacy applications — applications that are already existing and in use in government processes.

The owner of the application will have to ensure that bridges are built, that is the existing applications are interoperable with newer ones. The onus will be on the vendor to ensure that all future versions of the same process comply with specified open standards. This will also protect government data by unlocking it from the influence or control of any particular vendor.

With this policy, India becomes the second country in the developing world – the first being Brazil – to have a formal policy mandating open standards in e-governance. South Africa and a few other countries emphasise on the use of open standards; however, their commitments have not been at a formal policy level. A few developed countries in the European Union, and even the U.K., have set open standards for e-governance. With this policy, Free and Open Source Software advocates believe, India shows the way for the developing world. In developing countries, where e-governance is still in its nascent stages, governments stands to gain from adopting such a policy for an obvious reason: saving costs by not having to cough up huge royalties to proprietary firms, usually large multi-national companies, in terms of royalties. As explained before, the SCOSTA is an ideal example of how huge savings can be made on public money.

The policy states that to implement this policy a ‘designated body' will be appointed by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology. This body will comprise academics, technology experts and various stakeholders from the government and non-government sector, a senior official in the Department of Information Technology told The Hindu. The body will consider and recommend the selection of an additional standard, give recommendations if multiple open standards are already available in an area (to choose the best one for the particular domain), review interim standards (the policy provides for interim standards if no open standards are available at the time of implementation of the project) and initiate action for formulation of interim standards if needed. Besides the designated body, an enforcement and compliance body is also on the anvil, the official said. Technological specifications for standards will be made public (on the existing website: egovstandards.gov.in).

The way forward

While the notification of the policy is a huge victory for the Free Software community in India and huge credit goes to the community – comprising individuals, academics, several non-governmental organisations and advocacy groups – that lobbied against every move to dilute the “openness” of these standards, this is only the first step.

Says Y. Kiran Chandra, general secretary of the Free Software Movement of India, an umbrella organisation of several Free Software groups and individuals, “The focus must now shift to sensitising various government departments about compliance with this policy. We should extend support to local government bodies to help them identify non-compliant solutions and deploy solutions that comply with this new policy.” He believes a policy like this, if implemented properly, can foster an environment where the country's technology graduates can be employed for engineering free alternatives in the light of the great demand for solutions brought about by this change.

More In: Technology | Sci-Tech