Open Documents and Democracy: A Political Basis for Open Document Standards

28 Pages Posted: 30 May 2009

See all articles by Laura DeNardis

Laura DeNardis

Georgetown University

Eric Tam

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: November 1, 2007


The modern information society depends upon an enormous variety of electronic devices in order to function on a day-to-day basis. Information and communication technology (ICT) devices are able to exchange information only if they adhere to common communication protocols, technical interfaces, and information formats. ICT standards are the blueprints enabling users to access, create, and exchange information regardless of their hardware or software choices. Increasingly, governments are establishing policies to use ICT products based on standards that adhere to principles of openness and interoperability. For example, Japan instituted a policy that government agencies and ministries should procure software products that support internationally accepted open standards. The Brazilian federal government issued an interoperability architecture establishing the adoption of open standards, such as Open Document Format (ODF), for technology used within the executive branch of the federal government. Similarly, Belgium's federal Council of Ministers approved a proposal to adopt open document standards for creating and exchanging office documents such as text files, spreadsheets, and presentations.

Academic analyses of open standards policies usually address economic and technical concerns. But technological design is also political. Technologies both embody values and, once developed, have political consequences. Rationales for government procurement policies based on principles of openness and interoperability should not be viewed exclusively through an economic or a technical lens, but through the prism of the principles that provide democratic governments with their legitimacy. This paper employs democratic theory as a method of political and ethical inquiry into the implications of openness in information and communication standards. Our account describes four ways in which standards can have political implications: 1. Standards can have implications for other democratic processes; 2. Standards can affect the broader social conditions relevant to democracy; 3. The content and material implications of standards can themselves constitute substantive political issues; and 4. The internal processes of standards-setting can be viewed politically.

After providing examples of each of these political implications, we examine various conceptions of openness in standards and describe maximal and minimal definitions of openness as conceptual poles that anchor each end of the spectrum of potential standards policy options. We then develop some guidelines as to the specific contexts in which democratic values require a greater degree of openness in both the substance of technical standards and their development, and consider these imperatives in the political context of electronic public documents. Finally, we describe some selected cases of government ICT procurement policies based on standards that adhere to principles of openness. Our overarching conclusion, emanating from both the theoretical and descriptive portions of this study, suggests that movements toward open standards, particularly in the context of electronic public documents, are highly beneficial for citizens who value democratic principles.

Keywords: Internet Governance, Technical Standards, Access to Knowledge

JEL Classification: K19

Suggested Citation

DeNardis, Laura and Tam, Eric, Open Documents and Democracy: A Political Basis for Open Document Standards (November 1, 2007). Available at SSRN: or

Laura DeNardis (Contact Author)

Georgetown University ( email )

Washington, DC 20057
United States

Eric Tam

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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