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Opinion: Standards Should Be Non-Partisan

A recent move by the Bush administration crossed a line that had previously been unthinkable even to approach.

A recent move by the Bush administration crossed a line that had previously been unthinkable even to approach. In late April, the White House denied the applications of four U.S. corporate representatives for inclusion in the U.S. delegation to a telecom standards meeting, because the individuals had contributed to the 2004 Kerry/Edwards campaign.

As reported in Time magazine, the companies involved were Nokia, Qualcomm, a respected telecom consulting firm and none other than Ibiquity Digital. They all had applied to attend a meeting of the Inter-American Telecommunication Commission (CITEL), a telecom standards group that meets three times a year throughout the Americas. The April meeting was held in Guatemala City, and as a regional subgroup of the International Telecommunications Union, CITEL operates under ITU rules that require all delegates to be approved as part of a national delegation.

This approval generally is straightforward, performed in the United States by the State Department, and traditionally based upon technical qualifications of the applicant and company. In this case, however, as related to Radio World, the representatives were notified at the eleventh hour that their applications were not approved, but that their companies were free to propose alternative representatives. This led some of the affected parties to explore the reasons for their rejection, and it was learned that the White House had cross-referenced the names of attendees to the public list of Kerry contributors. (These were not exactly major donors; the contributions made were reportedly on the order of a few hundred dollars each.)

To its credit, when the story became public, the administration did not shrink from its decision. White House spokesman Trent Duffy told Time magazine, “We wanted people who would represent the administration positively, and – call us nutty – it seemed like those who wanted to kick this administration out of town last November would have some difficulty doing that.”

But the lack of understanding for standardization processes revealed by these comments is staggering, particularly in the assumption that party politics would play such a predominant role. Perhaps it’s understandable that politicians see everything this way; but it’s another indication of how politics and technology generally don’t mix well.

Party membership is an inappropriate criterion of choice for who should represent the U.S. consumer, its labor force and its economy in technical standards deliberations. The development of these important international agreements should be done by the most technically competent and experienced parties the nation can provide, regardless of their political views. Moreover, applying such penalties to citizens in corporate contexts could produce a chilling effect on their freedom of expression.

We can only hope that the precedent set here will not be repeated, but given the rhetoric to date, our confidence in this is not high. As the nation begins its 230th year this week, it seems it still has a lot to learn.

– RW