Let’s Thwart This Terrible Idea for Standards Setting

Yet another way that China–US tensions are threatening technological progress

8 min read
Illustration of two cargo ships facing each other, one with a US flag, and one with a China flag
Illustration: iStockphoto

For more than a century, the world has enjoyed a run of technological progress that has in countless ways made our lives enormously richer, more interesting, more comfortable, and more rewarding. Often overlooked in the background of this unimaginably vast enterprise, and yet helping to keep it running smoothly and efficiently, is a comparably sprawling international standards establishment.

Even for most engineers, standards are like air conditioners, automatic transmissions, and hearts: we generally don’t pay much attention to them until something’s gone wrong. By that measure, we could all be thinking an awful lot about standards in the very near future.

It's not news that tensions are high at the moment between the United States and China, the world’s two great economic and technical superpowers. And now, to the many points of contention between the two countries, add a brewing clash over technical standards that could seriously disrupt technological progress for decades to come.

How did the establishment of standards, considered by some a bureaucratic backwater, become a potential flashpoint between superpowers? The short answer is that standards setting has always been an arena for conflict and mediation among competing businesses and governments. Indeed, what’s been remarkable has been the steady creation of the tens of thousands of technical standards that underpin our modern world, despite the inherent conflict. Successful standards emerge from what might be described as a small miracle: Engineers, executives, administrators, and other decision-makers come together with their own preferences in mind, but they end up working for a good greater than their own immediate self-interest. Now, however, superpower tensions are threatening to derail that precious process to the detriment of everyone.

Whether that happens might well be decided by an obscure Congressional commission later this year. In 2020, the ten members of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a panel created by the U.S. Congress in 2000, urgently recommended that the U.S. fundamentally change the way it approaches standards. Specifically, the commission argued that the U.S. must turn away from its fractious, freewheeling approaches to standards setting and imitate the more unified Chinese approach by creating a high-level committee that would coordinate with American companies and allies to support U.S. priorities in global standards-setting organizations.

It may seem like a reasonable approach at first consideration. But it’s not. It is a terrible idea, and it needs to be nipped in the bud before it can do real damage to the most successful technological establishment the world has ever seen.

Technical standards hold the global economy together. They specify the characteristics or performance requirements of countless aspects of your world, and you’re completely oblivious to most of them. The code that converts your finger’s pressure on a keyboard key into a symbol on your computer screen? That’s the ISO/IEC 646 family of standards.  And that television in your media room? It was transported across the sea in a shipping container, whose corners interlocked with those of adjacent containers in accordance with ISO standard 1496. You get the idea. Non-governmental technical committees, thousands of which are active at any time, create most of these standards. Their members are typically engineers and other experts representing the companies, universities, and other entities worldwide that are the main producers or purchasers of the object or the process being standardized. Most of the technical committees also have experts who explicitly represent the larger public interest. These are often engineers who volunteer their time and pay their own expenses.

IEC first meeting 1906The International Electrotechnical Comission (IEC) was founded in June, 1906, in London at a meeting held at the Hotel Cecil. The meeting was organized by the Institution of Electrical Engineers.Image: International Electrotechnical Commission

Standard-setting organizations (SSOs) and networks of SSOs organize these technical committees. The largest such network is the International Organization for Standardization (ISO, founded in 1946) and its partner, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC, founded in London in 1906). Their members are national-level standard-setting bodies that exist in almost every country. Those bodies, in turn, have members from engineering societies (including the IEEE), from trade associations in different industries, and from such other organizations as testing laboratories, companies, non-profits, and government agencies.  In parallel with all of this conventional standards activity, at any given moment there are hundreds of corporate consortia creating anticipatory standards in new fields in which technologies are not yet stabilized. 

The 1906 London meeting establishing the IEC adopted a brilliant precept. It mandated that national delegations to the new international body should represent not governments but private or non-profit standards bodies. These delegations would consist of people representing manufacturers, purchasers, and independent engineers charged with representing the larger public interest. An exception was made for countries where the electrotechnical industry was so new that no private organization existed. During the Soviet era, the IEC and ISO allowed a second exception for countries with centrally planned economies.

Over the past century, an ecology of technical committees, institutions, and their international community of engineers has grown and evolved stupendously but has nevertheless remained a largely private, non-governmental endeavor. The participating organizations typically cooperate with governments and include representatives of government organizations (often in their role as major purchasers), but they are in no way appendages of a national government.  Of course, the evolution of the standards ecosystem reflects the spread and development of technologies. Outside the ISO/IEC network, global organizations produce standards for the internet (IETF, the Internet Engineering Task Force -1986), the web (W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium – 1994), and mobile broadband standards (3rd Generation Partnership Project, 3GPP – 1998).  The 3GPP is an association of the Chinese, European, Indian, Japanese, Korean, and U.S. telecommunications-industry associations.

During the past 20 years, as engineers from Chinese firms became more actively involved in international standards, a significant movement emerged in China to follow the example of other recent technology leaders, such as South Korea, and encourage company representatives to develop their own standardization policies and their own strategies in international technical committees.

But the standards world is now at a crossroads. A milestone along the way was passed in 2016, when the Chinese government moved from a passive to a proactive policy. That year, it pressured Chinese computer giant Lenovo to follow other Chinese firms and back Huawei’s preference for a key part of 3GPP’s 5G standard.

The ten-member US-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted that China has in recent years expanded its industrial policy into advocating for its “own” standards and trying to place Chinese experts in leadership positions in international standard-setting bodies. For example, Zhang Xiaogang of the World Steel Association was the first Chinese citizen to serve a two-year term as ISO head in 2015-17. The Commission raised fears the West could lose control of how technology develops because global adoption of standards first developed in China might very well favor Chinese exports and market share of 5G technology, electric car manufacturing, semiconductors, and robotics.

This isn’t new. There is a long history of governments attempting to use standards to promote their domestic industries and fearing the actions of other governments. That is why the British National Physical Laboratory, the American National Bureau of Standards (now National Institute of Standards and Technology), and the Standards Association of German Industry (NADI - Normenausschuss der deutschen Industrie) were created in the early 20th Century.

History strongly suggests that in the long run, the proposal from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission for the U.S. government to follow China’s lead by directing how American companies participate in international standard settings is unlikely to contribute to the prosperity of the U.S. economy, let alone to the world economy. Nor will Chinese companies or consumers benefit from the Chinese government’s recent attempts to unify and direct the standards strategies.   

The international group of electrical engineers who created the IEC already knew, from their long experience creating national bureaus and standards, that governments were not well equipped to choose and impose standards on businesses in newly developing technological fields. Government officials often lacked the expertise and professional interest of engineers and scientists on the staffs of companies in new and emerging technological fields. Most democratic governments hesitated to set any standards unilaterally, because doing so usually meant choosing one standard over another, thus creating an embittered group of companies or communities with irrecoverable investments in the standards not chosen—along with the new costs of conforming to their competitor’s standards. These governments preferred to let the stakeholders reach their own consensus within non-governmental SSOs.

Moreover, the record is, to put it charitably, mixed for cases in which a government promoted a national champion in international debates over standards for a new, potentially transformative technology. There have been a few successes, to be sure. One of the most notable is the CCITT G3 fax standard, from 1980, which laid the institutional groundwork for the fax machine boom of the 1980s-90s.  The major contribution of the Japanese government was to pressure competing Japanese telecommunications entities to cooperate and create a common standard, called READ, in 1977. The government, together with Japanese firms, then promoted and negotiated within a largely intergovernmental standard setting committee of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The more typical outcome of government pressure, however, has been the creation of competing standards. A notable example was for color TV in the 1960s. The French government’s advocacy of a French national champion in the ITU’s standard-setting process divided Europe into two regions of incompatible video standards (SECAM and PAL), and the world into three, because the U.S.-created NTSC standard had been previously established and already included a large installed base in the U.S. and several other countries. To this day this three-way-split continues to affect all the technologies built upon the now-forgotten early color TVs.

Good standards, in fact, any standards, usually result from cooperation among engineers working with their shared technical understanding on the basis of their shared professional norms, which are global, not national. Individual companies may promote a standard that favors their products or veto a proposal that would benefit competitors. But in such a case other firms may form a coalition, either in the SSO or the market, against the aggressive firm. A recent example occurred in 1988 when Intel failed to have its Communications Applications Specification accepted as a computer fax standard. 

Moreover, in cutting-edge industries, the most innovative and dynamic companies do not have strict nationalities. It’s hard for a Sony to be just a Japanese company and, therefore, willing to champion any standard that just one national government tries to impose. The same goes for Microsoft in the U.S. and Alibaba in China.

shipping containers stackedShipping containers, technically known as intermodal containers, are standardized according to specifications detailed in ISO 1496.Photo: Getty Images

Those who appreciate the prosperity supported by the global manufacturing system should remember the lesson of the industrial standard that made it possible. The ISO container standard, with its odd measurements in feet and inches, certainly reflects its origin in the United States. Nevertheless, it grew out of compromises worked out among private standards bodies all over the world. The resulting standards favored no individual company and would have been impossible for U.S. regulators to create by themselves

Undoubtedly, corporate advocates of a government-directed standards system, in China or the US, would love to reap the potential monopoly profits if government help would push some clever bit of their own proprietary technology into the next monster standard. It’s even possible that that is exactly what Huawei and the Chinese government are angling for with some 5G-related standards.

They should take a close look at the history of the container standard. The standard for the interlocking corners that connect containers on ships was built around a patented technology that one of the competing companies offered up royalty free to end years of contentious standards debates.  By foregoing the profit from licensing its patent, the firm reaped the long-term benefit of containers’ global adoption in a bigger market, instead of lesser, short-term profits from royalties in a smaller, fractionated market. Even the story of the government-promoted G3 fax standard is similar in this regard: The Japanese firms that were the technological leaders, NTT and KDD, gave up their intellectual property to assure global agreement on the standard.

While it may not be immediately apparent to members of Congress who read the report of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, many in China who understand the global history of successful standard setting hope to reverse the Chinese government’s relatively recent inclination to direct standards setting. Rather than following the Chinese government’s example, a better strategy for the U.S. and other industrial powers might be to support the Chinese businesses and engineers who prefer a more bottom-up system. They’re out there, and they could sure use some powerful allies.

Jonathan Coopersmith is a Professor at Texas A&M University, where he teaches the history of technology. He is the author of FAXED: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

JoAnne Yates is the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management and Emerita and Professor Post Tenure of Work and Organization Studies and Managerial Communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Her most recent book, Engineering Rules: Global Standard Setting Since 1880 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), is a study of the rise and important role of voluntary standard setting in the global economy.

It was co-authored with her husband, Craig N. Murphy, the Betty Freyhof Johnson ’44 Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College.

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