A Peek Inside the EU's Digital Inner Circle

The European Commission looms large in these pages. But despite that importance, it remains - to me, at least - an opaque beast. Hugely-important decisions are emitted by it, as the result of some long and deeply complex process, but the...

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The European Commission looms large in these pages. But despite that importance, it remains – to me, at least – an opaque beast. Hugely-important decisions are emitted by it, as the result of some long and deeply complex process, but the details remain pretty mysterious.

A case in point is the office of Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission, and responsible for the Digital Agenda – of particular interest to me and readers of this blog. As her informative Web site indicates, she has a large team that support her (aka her "cabinet"), so I was delighted to have the opportunity yesterday to chat on the 'phone with Anthony Whelan, who is officially Kroes's Head of Cabinet, shortly after he gave a speech at Idate's DigiWorld Summit 2010.

Given his seniority in a department that has a big impact on things digital, I was keen to explore the thinking there on open standards. This is an area that pops up both in the EU's Digital Agenda, which I wrote about earlier this year, and the European Interoperability Framework v2, which I've covered several times in recent weeks.

The latter isn't out yet, although Whelan said that it should be published before the end of the year, so we shouldn't have to wait long. This meant he wasn't at liberty to go into details, but the general approach seems to be that restriction-free open standards should be preferred when they are available; if they aren't, then more restrictive licences would be acceptable.

For further guidance on where things were going he pointed me to a speech made by Kroes back in June, and which I probably didn't give enough attention to. It does indeed contain some plain speaking about open standards:

Let's imagine two competing standards that are both technically excellent for a certain task but differ in the level of constraints for implementers. Which of these two standards do you think will see more implementation and use, including for unforeseen purposes? The one that you can download from a website and that you can implement without restrictions? Or the other one which you have to buy, which is restricted to certain fields of use and which requires royalty payments for embodied intellectual property rights (IPR)?

The answer is obvious. And that is why everybody who cares about interoperability should care about the financial conditions for the use of standards as well as the indirect constraints imposed on third parties: the fewer constraints the better.

The two-tier approach outlined by Whelan is also evident in this passage:

For me, it is a fundamental tenet that public administrations spending tax-payers' money should opt for the least constraining solution that meets the requirements for a given need. Such a rule, as the default, would shield public authorities from the dangers of long-term lock-in. It would also ensure competition between suppliers for follow-up contracts and for services. Opting for closed solutions would be possible, but on the basis of a clear justification, rather than because it was the easy option.

Another area I explored with Whelan was ACTA. Although this didn't come under the Digital Agenda umbrella directly, it obviously has major implications for it. Not surprisingly, he offered the standard EC line that ACTA won't require any changes in EU laws, and it's true that some of the more peremptory language in the drafts has been replaced by phrases that give more leeway to the signatories. But he did point out that there are several copyright initiatives underway or imminent whose thinking may well be influenced by ACTA, so we will need to make sure plenty of input is provided when these are announced.

Although our talk was constrained in the sense that Whelan was obviously not going to reveal anything that was not already public, I was comforted by the fact that he was evidently extremely familiar with even the details of the specific areas that we discussed. He was well aware of the different viewpoints and controversies concerning key points, although I felt that he gave too much credence to industry claims about the extent of the "damage" caused by digital piracy.

As I've shown, the figures cited by industry bodies like the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) in their doom-laden claims that "losses due to piracy to reach as much as 1.2 million jobs and ‚¬240 billion in retail revenue by 2015 in the [EU] creative industries" are almost entirely based on their own guesses, not independent research. As such, they need to be regarded with far more scepticism by those within the European Commission machine drawing up policy – especially key people like Mr Whelan.

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