It was August 1991, and I was sitting in a cafe in Geneva, Switzerland, having lunch with Tony Rutkowski, a man who was a senior official in the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) but whom nobody could seem to pin an exact title on. While many called him the General Counsel of the ITU (for reasons that will become apparent), Tony preferred to refer to himself as “Counsellor to the Secretary-General,” a title with enough ambiguity to serve his purposes.
Tony and I were celebrating a minor palace coup, a year in the making and the result of a bizarre partnership. How all this came to be can be traced to my propensity to flame.
For several years, I’ve been complaining about the high cost of international standards documents published by the ITU and other international standards groups. After all, I write professional reference books for a living and these documents are my raw materials.
At first the flames started as simple whining, but soon they grew to full-fledged diatribes in publications running the gamut of technical sophistication from Data Communications to ConneXions. I got lots of quotes from illustrious people like Jon Postel, Editor of the Internet Request for Comments (RFCs), who explained that keeping international standards away from “random people” was hurting their acceptance. The gestation time for software based on Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) serves as ample illustration of Postel’s point.
The fabled power of the press produced an effect about as pronounced as, say, an editorial in favor of truth and beauty. An occasional nod from a passing reader, but no cries of outrage.
As a sanity check, I posted a note on the Internet asking if anybody else thought that the inaccessibility of international standards was hindering technical progress. This hit a nerve. In fact, the resulting firestorm surprised even survivors of historically notable dialogues such as “should pornography be distributed on the net?”
The Internet has a wide community of users, but a convenient taxonomy splits them into flamers and firefighters. Flaming is easy to explain. You send a message and bingo, you’ve made 1,000 people all hit the delete key in their mail readers. The power to make so many people twitch is seductive and some people occasionally succumb. In fact, some succumb all too often.
The firefighters have a different motivation. Their happiness is inversely proportional to the size of their electronic inbox. Not everybody was terribly happy when their inboxes started filling with “me too,” “I agree,” and “another minor yet trivial point” variants on the first wave of reaction.
Dan Lynch, the founder of Interop Company, is a firefighter. He didn’t want to see this situation continue forever, so he sent me a copy of a memo written by Tony Rutkowski at the ITU. Turns out Tony was doing the same sort of complaining I was, but was directing his comments internally to the huge ITU bureaucracy.
Tony and I exchanged a few e-mail messages and found we were in violent agreement: standards have to be widely available or the standards are irrelevant. We started trying to figure out what could be done about it.
Turns out that we agreed on another point. We both feel that the ITU has a fairly dubious basis for asserting copyright protection on standards, since a standard spends months (often years) wandering around the public domain as a working-group document before it ever becomes blessed as an official standard and is “published.”
You can’t make a speech to a crowded room and then, one week later, tell people that your speech contained valuable trade secrets. You can’t publish a newspaper and then unpublish it. Once you give something away, it stays given away.
The lack of valid copyright protection is one argument for making standards more widely available, but there is a much more important one. If you believe, like Tony and I fervently did, that the ITU does valuable work, then the standards are an essential public good. Standards are laws and laws must be known to be observed.
Failing to make the standards widely available was, in the long run, going to make the work of the ITU irrelevant. Other standards making bodies were promulgating standards, and despite its official United Nations treaty status, the ITU had to compete with other groups for the attention of implementers and users.
I sent Tony a note and suggested that since we both agreed that the ITU really had an indeterminate legal basis for asserting copyright, I would simply take all 19,000 pages of the Blue Book, scan it, run it through OCR software, and post it on the Internet for distribution by anonymous FTP, a service that allows a site to give the public access to file archives using the File Transfer Protocol to any user who logs in as “anonymous.” (The Blue Book is the massive set of 1988 standards developed by the ITU’s Consultative Committee on International Telephone and Telegraph to govern the operation of everything from telephone signaling systems to packet data networks to ISDN to high-speed modems.)
Now, there are a couple of points worth keeping in mind. Tony was a senior lawyer for a powerful United Nations group that made lots of money selling these documents. While Tony certainly sympathized with my goals, I wasn’t quite sure how he was going to react to this form of standards terrorism. Putting a lawyer on notice that you plan to relabel his corporate assets with a $0 price tag is kind of like putting Honda stickers on the motorcycles parked out side a Harley bar.
The other point is that the Blue Book is over 19,000 pages long. Scanners and OCR are great technology, but it would take an awfully long time to carry out such a project on my little home PC. In fact, in a world of finite resources, you might even call my plan an idle threat.
Idle threat or no, this message caught the ITU’s attention. One year later, in June of 1991, after endless messages back and forth to Tony, I had received a fax from the Secretary-General asking me to post all ITU standards on the Internet on an “experimental” basis. I promptly booked a plane ticket to Geneva for August to pry the data out of the cold, clammy hands of the bureaucracy. Next thing I knew, I was in Geneva, ready to go to work.
I was sitting in Tony’s office reading a book while he went off to clear political barriers. In the other room, Julie Butterfield, his assistant, was busy typing away when the phone rang. Julie raced in with a pad of paper and answered the phone. “Mr. Rutkowski’s office.” She scribbled some notes on a pad.
“I’ll give him the message,” Julie said, hanging up the phone.
Something wasn’t right with this picture. As she walked out, I inquired why she didn’t just have the phone roll over to her desk if Tony doesn’t pick it up.
“We have nothing that sophisticated here at the ITU,” she responded with a smile and a strong dose of sarcasm.
A few minutes later, Tony came back and we started talking while Julie ran some errands. Her phone rang and Tony sprinted out to the outer office to take the call.
The ITU was using a very old donated Siemens PBX. This PBX was actually quite advanced for its time, but its time had long passed. This was a feature-rich PBX, but most of the features were so difficult to use that people didn’t use them. Tony brought in his AT&T phone from home just so he could have a few stored numbers.
Until recently, in fact, the entire ITU had one fax machine for over 900 employees. A single fax machine was more the result of bureaucratic desire to limit outside communications than a cost factor. The fax machine was in the Secretary-General’s office. This meant that sending a fax could require approval right up to the Secretary-General. To get the Secretary-General’s approval, you had to go through the Deputy Secretary-General, which would require re cursive approval right on down the food chain. Needless to say, to communicate through this medium you would have to be pretty strongly motivated.
What is really funny about all this is that ITU, as part of its enabling treaty, has the right to free telecommunications throughout the world. This perk is meant to allow easy communication to the 160 member countries, and even goes so far as to allow the ITU to set up terminal clusters at off-site meetings with X.25-based links back to Geneva.
I’m not quite sure what I expected at the ITU, but I kind of figured a modicum of computer literacy. Nothing fancy, mind you, but at least things like basic phone tricks, fax machines, and maybe even electronic mail. After all, this is the home of X.400, the message handling system to end all message handling systems. Was the ITU using X.400, though? Not a chance! They had Digital’s proprietary Message Router and the infamous All-in-(N)One as a user interface. X.400 connectivity was achieved by a poorly functioning gateway.
This lack of computer literacy at the ITU was what made Tony Rutkowski such an odd duck. When he came to Geneva he saw that none of the international bureaucracies had Internet hookups. So, Tony did what any self respecting technocrat would do and called up the nearest Internet provider, in this case the CERN physics laboratory, and asked for a guest account. Several years later, Tony was still the only ITU employee with access to the Internet.
Tony had taken a rather strange career path to his position at the ITU (a position he left at the end of 1991). After studying engineering at the Florida Institute of Technology, he became quite active in civil rights. Eventually, he landed himself a seat on the city council, getting further involved in policy and politics.
From there, through a roundabout road, his interest in telecommunications drew him to Washington, D.C., where he went to work for the chief scientist at the FCC. The chief scientist was also an Internet old boy, and the FCC was promptly installed as part of the Internet. While working at the FCC by day, Tony put himself through law school at night at American University.
Eventually, Tony went up to Boston to become the publisher of Telecommunications. In Boston, he alleviated the drudgery of punching out a magazine by working as a Research Associate at MIT’s Media Laboratory.
Altogether, this mix of lawyer, regulator, and engineer was just the combination needed when Pekka Tarjanne took over the helm of the ITU. A physicist by training, Tarjanne was determined to bring the ITU into the telecommunications age and asked Tony to work a his personal assistant.
My first face-to-face meeting with Tony, after countless e-mail messages, was in August when I took the train in from Paris and went to the twelfth floor of the ITU tower. As I got off the elevator, a short man with a beard darted in after me, posted a piece of paper in the elevator and jumped back out again just as the doors slammed shut.
This was Tony. He was trying to get into every elevator to post a notice of my lecture the next day. The lecture was news to me, so I read the notice. Along with the obligatory hype, the notice explained that I would be lecturing about a host of topics ranging from the future of networking in the civilized world to how more bandwidth would lead to world peace.
After catching the last elevator, Tony and I wandered across the street to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). It is ironic that the acronym used by this global standards organization is a dyslexic variant of its real name.
ISO is a rather strange group. Unlike the ITU, ISO is a private organization. Like ANSI in the U.S., ISO’s lack of real legitimacy to carry out its quasi-governmental functions makes the organization a bit insular and very conservative. Located in a squat, drab building, ISO occupies the dimly lit corridors of the third and fourth floors. The halls are almost always empty, but occasionally one can see a functionary dart out of one office and flit into another.
Tony and I wandered around the halls to find people to invite to my lecture. The purpose of our visit was to make sure everybody at ISO knew about the ITU experiment. I was a bit worried that putting ISO on notice would be considered confrontational, but Tony assured me that there was “nothing wrong with pushing forward the state-of-the-art a bit.”
My lecture, by the standards of public bureaucracies, was a stunning success. Aside from the obligatory ITU contingent trying to figure out what their management was up to, there was a large crowd of functionaries from diverse UN contingencies interested in the Internet. Only a few people fell asleep, and a few even asked questions. This was described by several people as a “dynamic” performance.
I described how the standards would be posted on the network, how different access protocols would be used, and how making standards widely available had been so successful for the TCP/IP protocols. I explained how, once the data was digital, we could all start using advanced services, write better code and how, when all was said and done, we would enter a state of standards equilibrium, a nirvana of documentation.
Unbeknown to us at the time, the audience included an operative from ISO, sent over to keep tabs on the radical goings-on across the street. When my own spies informed me of this the next morning, I placed a call to Dr. Zakharov, head of the ISO computer group. I explained who I was and said that, at the request of ITU management, I would be happy to come over and give them a courtesy briefing on our little project.
“That sounds mighty exalted. Come over Thursday morning.”
Two days later, I donned my suit and dashed through the rain to the other side of Rue Varembé. I bypassed the obligatory visit to ISO reception and went straight to the third floor and back through a warren of offices, where I was ushered into the inner sanctum of Dr. Zakharov.
Walking in, I saw an older man behind the desk wearing the sort of safari suit that the British favor. “You are Malamud?” he asked. “I have asked McKenzie to join us” he said, beckoning to a young man wearing a shirt and tie who nodded at me with a glum gaze.
“McKenzie is our database expert. I have asked him to be here because what we have here is a database issue, not a network issue.”
“Let me first say that I know all about this Internet of yours,” he continued. “I used the Internet even before it was the Internet. In fact, before it was the ARPANET. This Internet of yours may be fine for researchers, but here at ISO we have real clients to serve, so enough about this Internet.”
I was still standing. A pause introduced itself, so it seemed an appropriate moment for a few formalities.
“Glad to meet you,” I said, holding out my hand.
McKenzie continued to glance at the floor and Dr. Zakharov grunted in what I took to be an amiable fashion so I gathered my courage and made a little speech about how my efforts with the ITU were experimental, provisional, something we could learn from, temporary, and any other non-threatening platitudes I could think of.
My little speech contained a fatal flaw. I had used the pronoun “we.” Now, “we” is not totally inappropriate as this effort was based on the efforts of several interested parties, but I must admit that the corporate offices of Me, Inc. do not actually teem with corporate retainers.
“We?” Zakharov pounced. “Who is ‛we’?” he demanded. “How many members are on your team, anyway?”
Like many corporate types, my lack of a formal institutional affiliation did not sit well with him. I sidestepped his question and explained that, in my view, the question of publishing standards was, rhetoric notwithstanding, just not that hard. After all, there were hundreds of ways to get data on-line, ranging from Wordstar to bitmaps to SGML (an ISO standard).
To say that ISO viewed my little project as a threat was an understatement. Zakharov let slip that the Secretary-General of ISO had sent a letter to his counterpart at the ITU protesting the experiment. Zakharov made it quite clear that he viewed my approach as simplistic, misguided, and naive.
I gently tried to make the point that there were positive aspects to this project that should not be overlooked, such as increasing the public awareness of the vital work that groups like ISO were under taking by making primary resource documents available to a wider audience.
Once again, my diplomatic efforts seemed less than successful. “People don’t need to read the standards,” Dr. Zakharov snapped. Indeed, he felt that ISO standards were basically unreadable and that normal people shouldn’t even bother to try. What was apparently needed was some guru to write a book, and that these second or third-generation digested versions of standards were more appropriate for the general public. Turns out that Zakharov had himself written such a book (“a monograph, actually”) on some long-forgotten CAD standard.
I’m all in favor of promoting book sales, but there is still no substitute for the original documents. A programmer working on an implementation should be required to RTFM (“Read the F***ing Manual” or, in the staid company of standards potatoes, “Read the FTAM Manual”). There is no excuse for second-hand knowledge of something as vital as international standards.
So far, we had spent 45 minutes of a one-hour meeting about databases, and the subject of databases still had not come up. It didn’t look like it was going to. McKenzie still hadn’t said anything and didn’t appear to be about to burst into action.
As I paused to gather my forces, Zakharov jumped in. “Another thing, young man. Do the people in charge of the Internet know about your efforts?”
He seemed convinced that when some appropriate official learned that I would be distributing documents — “with graphics, no less” — on the network, my renegade activities would be quickly stopped.
(Let’s put this into perspective. The NSFNET backbone transfers well over 14 billion packets per month. Even if my server was wildly popular, the backbone could handle it. Just to be sure, I was going to send the big computer companies archive tapes so they didn’t need to FTP the entire file store into their internal networks.)
I told him that indeed my activities were supported by appropriate officials. The chairman of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), for example, had offered to be one of the anonymous FTP sites for the standards. I didn’t tell Zakharov that the incoming chair of the IAB, who had also chaired several ISO committees, had on his home computer many ISO documents and had half-seriously offered them to be posted along with the Blue Book.
“It’s not that we’re against the Internet,” Zakharov explained. “We just want to make sure that all the issues are properly considered. In fact, we are using the TCP/IP protocols here at ISO.” ISO had been unable to find enough OSI software to keep their internal network going, so they used a combination of Novell and TCP/IP.
My allotted hour was nearing the end, so I once again began mumbling conciliatory phrases about experiments, cooperation, and similar appropriate fin-de-meeting noises.
“So what do you want from us?” Dr. Zakharov cut in, ever the diplomat.
I pulled out my extra large shovel and explained that since ISO obviously had concerns about the experiment, I was simply here to explain my efforts. “By the way,” I continued, “ISO is welcome to join in our little experiment. I have plenty of disk space left.”
Zakharov grunted. McKenzie sat.
Zakharov rose. McKenzie rose.
Our little meeting was over. Back at the ITU, the machinery had swung into action and, with a few false starts, my tapes were being cut.