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Recent events have shown the power of intellectual property in the online space. A few weeks ago, Microsoft ran into some hot waters over a patent related to patents. This week brings up a new set of challenges as the World Wide Web Consortium fights attempt to raise licensing fees on critical ISO standards. While the EOLAS issue represents some problems for a small segment of the Internet (plug-ins in web browsers), the ISO effort stands to undermine the Internet as a whole, moving forward.

The back story on this is that the ISO is an international body that creates standards. In the case of the recent action, the ISO has created three critical standards: one that tells how to set a country code (ISO-3166), another that sets how to identify languages (ISO-639) and one to specify currencies (ISO-4217). Historically, the ISO has levied fees from people who wanted to buy a copy of the standard but made their implementation free to everyone.

Bucking the trend of making all standards royalty free, the ISO is now considering levying fees for implementing these three critical standards covering codes for languages, countries, and currencies. While the last one will have less of an impact, the first two could impede the development of a world wide web, as they sit at the core of any internationalization effort on the Internet. Not only do they affect the web but they also have a potential impact on every single facet of the Internet.

For example, RFC 1591, which explains how domain names are organized points to one of the documents, ISO-3166. If the net was to act without that fee-levying, the whole domain name system would have to be redesigned to avoid using domain names ending with country codes like .uk or .fr. Every country would then have to accept a new set of standards and then implement them. The cost of such an undertaking alone would probably completely take any value out of the Internet for decades to come.

Basically, the three standards in question are so embedded in the fabric of the Internet that, without them, the Internet could die. As such, one could argue that such standards give the ISO a virtual monopoly over the Internet and that’s cause for concern.

Coupled with the recent action by Verisign and subsequent reaction by many organizations (ISC, IAB and ICANN all denounced the action), it represents a troubling trend: large organizations trying to kidnap the Internet in the search for more profits.

Hopefully, some groups are looking out for us but be aware that the price of such freedom is eternal vigilance (with apologies to Thomas Jefferson).

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