Open Standards under siege in the European Union

If Internet users are to be truly free to choose whatever software and applications they desire to use, we need an established norm for open standards as a prerequisite for both consumer friendliness and easy market innovation in an fair, anti-monopoly environment. In the last few years a number of European countries, including Denmark, Spain, Germany and UK, among others, have decided that open standards and interoperability should guide government policy in all fields. Today the European Union can play an even more crucial role in opening up markets, institutions and networks for Internet users by laying out a series of legal ground rules and establishing clear benchmarks for IT public procurement policy.

Nevertheless, openness still seems to be considered a dirty word in a number of official corridors of Brussels that are probably under the well-organized lobbying efforts of the Microsoft empire (according to some malicious rumours difficult to believe the campaign is being promoted by “revolving door” European Commission officials who returned to public service after a number of years of “leave” on the Microsoft payroll). According to many observers this US IT giant is trying to counter-attack after taking heavy blows and fines precisely from the new Digital Commissioner Nelly Kroes who previously held the post of the EU’s competition czar.

The fierce fight underway inside the European Commission over the future of open standards and interoperability confronts the interests of consumers and businesses on both sides of the Atlantic. Over the last few months the new digital Commssioner Nelly Kroes has put forth an ambitious defense of open standards in her public appearances. In the first drafts of her “EU Digital Agenda” that will be the road map for European legislative and financial initiatives over the next five years, she established firm opposition to the monopolistic “locked-in” software practices both in the public and private spheres. Her clear words have insisted that the EU must “practice what it preaches” about interoperability in its own institutions by moving European Parliament, the Commission and the Council toward open source software in its own public contracts. The early texts leaked of the Digital Agenda also seemed to propose a financial and legislative shift toward EU financial support for research as well as business and government models that are based on open-source standards. On a legislative level Kroes also has proposed to draft a new European Interoperability Framework with the same open objectives.

These are a few of the pro-openness proposals from the original draft of Digital Agenda that are now in danger from the anti-open source backlash:

“Reform the governance system for ICT standards in Europe to recognise ICT fora and consortia standards;?Issue a Recommendation to streamline the use of open standards in public services and public procurement;?Update the European Interoperability Framework to promote an open approach to technology and interoperability;?Examine the feasibility of measures to promote interoperability with applications based on de facto standards;?Promote the development of open standards for new applications and services by supporting industry-led platforms through EU-funded programmes.”

If this EU programme was put into practice a number of major IT companies would have a harder time at locking out new innovative competitors and millions of internet users would have a much easier time at communicating without technical barriers. EU citizens would for the first time be able to participate in European democratic institutions without being forced to purchase one particular closed brand of software in order to exchange information with their elected representatives.
The final “EU Digital Agenda” will be presented at the end of April and the latest news is that the openness agenda is losing the battle within the European Commission while a few narrow business interests are taking the upper hand. If it were published today the term “open standards” would be totally erased from the whole document. In this important fight the positions of the general public interest have hardly been taken into account. Voices in favour of open standards and interoperability urgently need to be heard in Brussels.

David Hammerstein, TACD