Why Standards Matter – Episode 16


July 5, 2022

Watch on YouTube


  • Alissa Cooper, Cisco Systems

“The diversity of the standards development organizations (SDOs) is itself a virtue, as you do not want any SDOs to work the same”

Alissa Cooper is the Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for Technology Policy and a Fellow at Cisco Systems. She leads and supports the company’s technology policy work on artificial intelligence, broadband, and technical standards. In fact, she was the first female chair of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) in 2017, a position she held until 2021. Alissa holds a Ph.D. from the Oxford Internet Institute and MS and BS degrees in computer science from Stanford University. Prior to joining Cisco, Alissa served as the Chief Computer Scientist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, where she was a leading public interest advocate and technologist on issues related to privacy, net neutrality, and technical standards.

When first joining the IETF Alissa was impressed by the cooperative nature of standards development where worldwide experts from all over the world meet, discuss, and find alignment on how to set a standard that allows better interoperability for different systems and products in the market. Alissa points out that these experts work for competing companies and that means you do not necessarily trust each other. But that’s a good thing she explains as standards development is about finding consensus about different views. Companies heavily invest in standards development to ensure that there is access to markets, and this only works when all stakeholders take part.

The rules and governance of standards bodies however are very diverse, depending on the purpose, technology, and industry. There are hundreds of private-led standard organizations. These bodies are subject to different procedures and rules and Alissa points out that this heterogeneity is needed to meet the different needs of each industry and technology. While the private standards consortia have individuals or companies as members international bodies such as ITUT, ISO or CEN have countries as members. These more formal bodies set general rules and guidelines, liaising with the private-led standards organizations.

Alissa explains that the standards development process takes place in meetings in different groups and committees within proposals submitted and discussed by its members. Here typically one person, expert, or entity is driving an initial item or proposal that is presented. Standards development in most of these organizations is consensus-driven, which means that all oppositions to proposals and ideas are considered and discussed. This makes sure that the final standards are approved and accepted by all members and thus the industry. Even more, some standards bodies also ensure the wide adoption of standards with testing and feedback loops into the standard development process, making sure that standards can be easily implemented and deployed.

Standard development is a means to influence technology trajectories. This is not only of interest to private companies but also to governments. Considering the geopolitical crises, the past years have triggered a discussion about excluding certain companies with headquarters in certain countries from the standards development. Alissa has a very clear standpoint about those discussions as she believes that the exclusion of any company or country would in the long term always harm the system. She believes exclusion creates parallel processes while competing for national standards will always decrease interoperability and access to global markets.

Alissa says in her final statement that there is an incredible diversity in the standard development ecosystem that is often overlooked. Blanket statements of certain companies or countries that are supposed to be dominating or winning in standards development, ignore, in her opinion, the complexity of the reality. Alissa states that it may be hard to understand the diversity of all these standards development groups but it’s worth understanding this diversity.

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