As you may remember, there was a discussion on the Unicode list last month about the ISO 3166 Maintenance Agency changing the 3-letter country code for Romania from ROM to ROU. The request to make this change was made by the Romanian government, but no specific rationale was provided, and some conjectured it had to do with shunning the abbreviation "ROM," the Romanian word for "gypsy."
A few of us worried about the "stability" of a standard in which codes could be changed at the request of a single body. We contrasted it with the Unicode and ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2/WG2 policy of never changing the names or positions of coded characters, for the sake of interoperability and compatibility. Recently, for a totally unrelated reason, I requested a copy of the list of ISO 3166 "Reserved Code Elements" from the ISO 3166/MA. These are codes that the ISO 3166/MA has pledged not to allocate because of the potential for confusion or interoperability problems. The list provides quite an interesting supplement to the regular ISO 3166 code lists. There are three types of reservations: 1. transitional, generally used for countries that have recently changed names or ceased to exist. 2. indeterminate, generally used to avoid conflicts with non-3166 symbols on automobile ID stickers. 3. exceptional, usually made at the request of a specific country or body to avoid conflicts and confusion (e.g. the United Kingdom ("GB") asked for "UK" to be reserved). Under the category of "indeterminate" reservations, the list refers to the 1949 and 1968 UN Conventions on Road Traffic, which established the use of country codes for little white elliptical stickers on rear bumpers, and states, "Any use [of these codes] beyond the application of the two Conventions is discouraged and will not be approved by the ISO 3166/MA." Now, can you guess what one of these reserved codes is? Ah, you're too smart. That's right, ROU. ROU is listed as an "indeterminately reserved alpha-3 code element" for Uruguay. One can presume that this is a road-vehicle abbreviation for República Oriental del Uruguay (a legend that has appeared on Uruguayan coins for at least a century). In any case, it turns out that ISO 3166/MA has not only changed a country code element, potentially breaking some application or usage that depended on the stability of the standard, but changed it to another code that the MA has already listed as reserved, saying in effect "we promise not to use this code for anything." This would be like the Unicode Standard not only moving an encoded character to a different code point, but moving it to one of the noncharacter code points (such as U+FDD0). As Ken Whistler pointed out last month, ISO 3166 was intended more for bibliographic purposes than for computer applications, so the policy of "once encoded, set in stone" that works for Unicode does not apply equally to ISO 3166. But a policy of explicitly reserving codes for non-use, publishing the list (even if it has to be specially requested), and then turning around and using a code from that list, without an *extremely* compelling and publicly stated justification, can't be a good thing. Standardizers, please learn a lesson from this. -Doug Ewell Fullerton, California