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Public Discourse and Open Standards

Back in May I announced that Verilab had joined Accellera and that specifically, I was a member of the Verification IP technical standards committee.  Later that month, I posted some comments about the discussions going on in the VIP TSC.  Then... nothing.  Of course, there have been several conference calls and a face to face at DAC since then.  Why the radio silence? 

As it turns out, Accellera, an open standards committee, prefers to deliberate behind closed doors.  Though there is no official policy on discussing the ongoing day to day business of the organization via a blog or any other media, a decision was made by the chairs of the VIP TSC to hold off on any additional public discourse on the activities of Accellera until an official policy could be created. 

Now, before I'd gotten too involved in an Accellera blogging discussion, I was invited to interview Shrenik Mehta, Senior Director, Frontend Technologies & OpenSPARC program, Microelectroncs, Sun Microsystems and Chair of Accellera during DAC. The timing of our meeting couldn't have been better, as I'd had a couple of weeks to think about the impact of blogging standards committee activities and was ready with questions.  As best as I could tell, Shrenik's concerns about blogging centered on issues such as:

  • want to make sure standards work is not disclosed prematurely (i.e. before it is finished)
  • many companies have restrictions on communicating in public
  • possible that bloggers may confuse an individual's view with a company's view
  • standards activities could degrade into name calling or other non-optimal behavior if bloggers posted false information about the positions of other committee members

The end result of our discussion was that Shrenik asked me to propose a policy for use by the committee.  Touch√©.  As far as I'm concerned though, it is relatively straightforward to come up with such a policy.  For the basics I refer to Sun's Guidelines on Public Discourse (important points summarized below).  (Note: IBM also has similar guidelines.)

  • Don't tell secrets
  • Don't comment on work-related legal matters
  • Be respectful
  • Write what you know
  • Don't write anonymously
  • Think about consequences
  • Other people's information belongs to them

A couple of these points have special meaning in the context of Accellera activities.  First, what does it mean not to tell secrets?  Information presented in Accellera meetings is explicitly meant not to be secret.  Anyone can join a TSC from any company, even without paying the Accellera membership dues.  So, it goes without saying that companies should not be presenting information they don't want their competitors to know.  Based on a conversation I had with a colleague with experience working on IEEE standards committees, there can be cases where committee members are not meant to use portions of the work of the committee even within their own companies.  I don't believe the current Accellera bylaws have anything to say on the above point though. 

Second, what about the point that "other people's information belongs to them"?  Actually, this was the biggest question I had about blogging on Accellera activities before the topic had even come up within the TSC.  For example, does the fact that someone mailed out a presentation to the TSC or donated source code to Accellera mean I can take that information and post it directly on my blog?  I believe the answer to that question should be no, not without permission of the copyright holder (which would be either Accellera itself in the case of donated code or the presenter in the case of materials sent out to the mailing list).  However, I do believe it is fair game to publish a summary of the material along with relevant commentary.

Of course, the above guidelines really are meant to let you know what not to do when blogging.  I (and Sun, IBM, and many other companies) believe blogging allows individuals to open up a dialog with the outside world and promote a robust exchange of ideas.  I've personally found that I think much harder about positions I take when I'm writing them up to show to hundreds or thousands of my closest friends on the Internet.  I also benefit greatly from the responses I get from my readers.  I think it's logical to conclude that a standards organization like Accellera could only serve to benefit from open communication between its members and the general public.  With that in mind, I propose the following additions to Sun's blogging policy for use by Accellera:

  • Documents and source code shared among committee members should not be posted on external sites without the copyright holder's approval. 

Really, this is just a clarification of the "other people's information belongs to them" part of the Sun policy.  Optimally, there would be a way for Accellera to publish these types of documents directly so as to maintain a public archive of topics of interest to the general public.

  • Members should refrain from quoting other members of the TSC or directly attributing positions to specific members or member companies unless they obtain approval first. 

Why?  I can't think of any legal reason but I believe good manners and the desire to maintain a good working relationship with fellow committee members suggests that indiscriminately quoting conversations made during standards meetings is in poor taste, and should be avoided. Basically, think about consequences. Finally:

  • Members should make it clear that the opinions they are expressing regarding the activities of Accellera are their own.

Basically, members should be free to share thoughts on the progress of a committee or the technical merits of proposed solutions but should avoid doing so in a manner that suggests they are communicating the official position of Accellera on the matter.  Accellera has a way to communicate to the public as an organization if needed. 

So that's it.  I believe if Accellera members follow general social media best practices and the additional recommendations I've made above that we should be able to hold a dialog with the general engineering community that will more quickly produce better standards.  Of course, this isn't an official Accellera policy yet.  I'd appreciate feedback from readers.  Have I missed something?  Is my proposal too restrictive? Not restrictive enough?  Would you be more or less likely to participate in a standards organization such as Accellera if the group was more open?  Enquiring minds want to know!