The International Accreditation Forum (IAF) has voted to make participation in its CertSearch database of ISO certifications a mandatory part of membership, setting the stage for a significant conflict with both ISO and its own members.

IAF members are accreditation bodies (ABs), many of whom have long resisted participation in global ISO certificate databases. The clients of ABs are certification bodies (CBs), who have argued that such portals allow competing CBs to “poach” clients. Without a global verification tool, however, it has become increasingly difficult to differentiate between valid, accredited certificates and the flood of fake ISO certificates coming out of countries such as China, India, the US, and UK.

For nearly two decades, Oxebridge had called on the ISO to create a single verification portal to prevent the growth of “certificate mills”, but ISO refused. The IAF then attempted to do this on its own, through CertSearch, but this effort was made voluntary. As a result, the IAF saw little engagement, and the CertSearch data was incomplete and rife with errors.

Rather than work with ISO and the Committee on Conformity Assessment (CASCO) to make CertSearch a mandatory requirement under ISO 17011 or ISO 17021-1, the IAF again went their own way and has now made it only a condition for AF membership. As a result, ABs who object to the rule may find they have reason to leave the IAF entirely.

At the same time, the IAF has created a complicated fee-based model which limits searches by users but will monetize the data for those willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for industry research. This creates a conflict with ISO itself, which publishes the annual ISO Survey report, analyzing the world’s total ISO 9001 and other certificates. The CertSearch move is likely to induce ISO to cease publishing the free ISO Survey, which has been released annually since the 1990’s.

If ISO does cancel the annual ISO Survey, it will mean the end of free, publicly available information on ISO certification adoption rates and trends. Instead, the data will be hidden behind the IAF paywall, and inaccessible to the public. This will allow ISO and other actors to make whatever claims they want about the popularity of ISO standards, without any ability to verify the claims.

The IAF understood the move was unpopular with ABs and CBs, so spent the last year publishing endorsements for mandatory CertSearch participation by third-party companies. That campaign attempted to induce the ABs to eventually accept CertSearch as mandatory. Oxebridge sources report that key ABs, including UKAS of the United Kingdom, are livid with the decision.

UKAS recently announced its own database, called CertCheck, as a competitor to CertSearch. While UKAS claims it will transpose the CertCheck data into IAF CertSearch, sources have reported that behind the scenes UKAS is actually considering breaking from IAF entirely.

The IAF CertSearch database was developed by the Australian firm Quality Trade, which has operated the service for free until this point. Quality Trade now stands to earn the bulk of CertSearch’s revenue, from paid searches and sale of the aggregate data.

IAF membership has fallen under a cloud of controversy, as the group has been accused of violating international sanctions, US regulations, and engaging in intellectual property theft of its own members. The IAF is slated to merge with the laboratory accreditation group ILAC by next year. IAF is currently the subject of a formal OFAC money laundering complaint in the US for having received funds generated by Russian firms under US sanctions, such as Gazprom. ILAC has refused to stop accreditation activities in Russia, and has rejected calls to comply with international law and sanctions. IAF leadership has argued that its internal procedures take precedent over international and US law.

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Why we report on these topics

Since 2000, Oxebridge has worked to improve ISO and related certification schemes by identifying problems and then proposing solutions. We report on issues affecting standards users because so few other news outlets do. Our belief is that in order to fix the problems in these schemes, we must first understand the nature and breadth of those problems. Our reporting aims to do just that. Elsewhere on the Oxebridge site you will find White Papers and other articles proposing ideas to correct these problems.

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