Passing laws and adding BIB-1 diagnostics

Years ago, I was a member of the Z39.50 Implementers’ Group. We’d gather from all around the world, maybe 30 or 40 of us, and meet for several days to discuss and vote on possible extensions to this venerable (and still important) information retrieval standard.

A common item of business was approving a new diagnostic code. The BIB-1 diagnostic set is a set of several hundred numeric codes that can be used in Z39.50 to indicate conditions from the very general (#1, permanent system error; #3, unsupported search) to the very specific (#15, Record not authorized to be sent intersystem; #201, Proximity not supported with this attribute combination attribute; #1072, Query term includes characters that do not translate into the target character set). Often someone would bring to the table a request to add a new code that would be useful in their implementation.

The way this went was entirely dependent on how far through the meeting we were. If someone’s request for a new diagnostic came up on the morning of the first day, we could happily spend hours, and I do mean hours, arguing back and forth over whether it was truly necessary, or whether some existing BIB-1 diagnostic could be used in its place. (“Do we really need to add “Unsupported Attribute” when we already have #113, Unsupported attribute type, and
#114, Unsupported Use attribute? Yes, because unsupported attributes may be of types that are not covered by diagnostics #114-123.”) It was touch and go whether any given proposal would be accepted or not.

On the other hand, the people who had been around the block a few times knew to schedule their request for the tail end of the meeting, when everyone was tired and ready to go home. Then the discussion would always go like this:

Chair: Bob wants to add a new diagnostic “Query is susceptible to misinterpretation under some rhetorical contexts”. Does anyone object
Everyone: meh.
Chair: OK, we assign this number 3,456.
[Exeunt, pursued by a gnawing sense that we might not have done our job as conscientiously as we could have.]

The moral: introduce your proposal late in the day, when people are tired of debating.

So far, so twenty years ago. Flash forward to today, and I see that Congress is deciding right now whether to include the CLOUD Act in the must-pass government spending bill. CLOUD, by all accounts, is pretty bad: the ACLU characterises it as “would let bad foreign governments demand data from US companies without checks and balances”.

Now I’ve read enough about CLOUD to have a well-informed opinion of my own. For all I know, the ACLU is being hysterical, and the bill contains more good than bad. But what I am certain of is that something this important should get a proper debate, and be assessed on its merits. It should not get tacked on as amendment to an unrelated bill — let alone to a “must pass” budget bill.

There’s a lot about US politics that makes no sense to me. Heck, there’s a lot about UK politics that makes no sense to me. But this has to be up there with the weirdest perversions of political process. For BIB-1 diagnostics, OK — just shrug and pass ’em. For bills with the possibility of infringing a quarter of a billion people’s civil liberties? Not so much.

Seriously, America, why do you tolerate this?

5 responses to “Passing laws and adding BIB-1 diagnostics

  1. Isn’t this also a variant of one of Parkinson’s Laws? (The one about the amount of money to be spent being in inverse proportion to the amount of time spent discussing it.)

  2. I’d not heard that law, but it does seem to fit.

  3. This is why the chair is such a powerful position. Setting the agenda allows not total but very great control over the eventual result. Hence why getting Jennie Formby as vice-chair of the NEC and general secretary of the party is such an important step towards the death of the Labour party.

    As I understand it (mainly from watching The West Wing) the USA’s federal government is notorious for sticking a grab-bag of unrelated clauses on the end of bills, due to weakness of the party structures — no whips — and the consequent rather extreme horse-trading needed to get anything to pass, with individual votes being bought by clauses designed to appeal to the hobby-horses of particular members, regardless of whether they have anything to do with the main subject of the bill.

    So this probably doesn’t, in that context, seem particularly egregious (and you could probably, if you were so inclined, dig up other examples of similar stuff which was passed in a similar fashion).

  4. H, you make a good point about how much power the person responsible for putting together the agenda has in practice (though that may not be the same person as the chair). As for whether the Corbynisation of the Labour party heralds its death or its triumph — it’s too early to tell. Let’s check back in five years.

    Every time I despair of UK politics, I’m reminded how much worse US politics is. I get a quick hit of relief — “at least we’re not that bad” — then a fresh hit of despair as a realise how much US policy affects the rest of us. Dear oh dear.

  5. Crash Random

    A practical, if parochial reason for Americans to put up with this particular bill is that the civil rights of U.S. citizens and legal residents aren’t much affected, at least not directly. Previously, European individuals (for example) might enjoy some American protection against investigation by their own governments, if their data was on American servers. But now American companies will allow approved foreign governments to investigate their own citizens in accordance with their own laws. The bill does not permit foreign governments (approved or otherwise) to surveil American citizens or legal residents.

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