Abstract: The Role of Firms in Industrial Standards Setting: Virtue and Vice

Craig Murphy


Most industrial standards have been set through the process of voluntary consensus standard setting (VCSS) since around 1900. Engineers volunteered their time to serve on technical committees of VCSS organizations to develop the standards. Early on, the participation of engineers working for concerned firms was controversial, since some claimed that representatives of firms would serve the firm's own interests rather than the common good. Others claimed that only engineers of the highest caliber, ethically as well as technically, would serve on these committees and that they would serve the greater good. This paper examines how the VCSS process evolved to reflect both the assumption of disinterestedness and the possibility of interested behavior. VCSS assumed that participating engineers would be fair and built this fairness into the process; at the same time, it developed committee membership rules that ensured a balance of potentially competing interests as a check against interested behavior. In recent decades, however, a flood of new standards-setting organizations and methods have appeared in the area of communication and information technology, upsetting that balance and potentially threatening fairness. The paper ends by posing questions about the implications of this change.