European Commission Betrays Open Standards


Just over a month ago I wrote about a leaked version of the imminent Digital Agenda for Europe. I noted that the text had some eminently sensible recommendations about implementing open standards, but that probably for precisely that reason, was under attack by enemies of openness, who wanted the references to open standards watered down or removed.

Judging by the latest leak [.pdf] obtained by the French site PC Inpact, those forces have prevailed: what seems to be the final version of the Digital Agenda for Europe is an utter travesty of the original intent.

For example, the draft version [.doc] dealing with interoperability was headed “Open Standards and Interoperability”; this has now become just “Interoperability and standards”. Similarly, the opening section of the draft has gone from this:

Consumers and public and private organisations should be able to interconnect their digital devices and applications simply and easily. While there is consensus that an open approach to technology stimulates economic growth, guidelines on open standards and interoperability have proved hard to define. The following actions will build on the debate on ICT standardisation.

to this:

Every IT product or service relies on one or more standards. Interoperability between these standards is the only way to make our lives and doing business easier – smoothing the way to a truly digital society.

This is not only vague, platitudinous piffle, it is technically rubbish. It is not a question of interoperability *between* standards, but of interoperability between different implementations of those standards. There is a world of difference between interoperability of different standards like HTML and TCP/IP, and between different implementations of ODF, say. The former is just a question of basic design, if anything, while the latter is where the battles take place – and where the European Commission should be establishing requirements. The whole premise of this new leaked version is flawed, which shows that the Commission either does not understand true interoperability or – more likely – does not care, but is cynically going through the motions anyway.

No wonder, then, that the wording of the latest version bears almost no resemblance to that of the earlier form. Indeed, where the former is peppered with the word “open”, that word occurs just once in the latter, in the following section:

The internet is the best example of the power of technical interoperability. Its open architecture gave interoperable devices and applications to billions around the world.

As you will notice, this is precisely the “other” kind of interoperability – of implementation – not the meaningless “interoperability between standards” that the European Commission has introduced as a complete red herring.

The extent of the capitulation of the European Commission in the face of pressure from traditional software vendors can be gauged by the final section, added since the earlier draft:

Since not all pervasive technologies are based on standards the benefits of interoperability risk being lost in such areas. The Commission will examine the feasibility of measures that could lead significant market players to license interoperability information while at the same time promoting innovation and competition.

That is, instead of promoting open standards and all the benefits that these bring, the Commission has simply thrown up its hands, and decided to accept “pervasive technologies” that *aren't* based on standards – a clear reference to Microsoft – and then meekly to “examine the feasibility” of measure that “could lead” to licensing. It's hard to imagine a more supine response or more pusillanimous formulation.

In short, this latest version of the Digital Agenda for Europe is an utter disgrace, and shows how beholden the European Commission remains to “significant market players”. There are no benefits for European citizens here: the Commission has abandoned them for who knows what reason, and ensured that millions of Euros will flow out of their pockets – and Europe - for costly software licences at a time when the European economy can ill afford such unnecessary expenses.

This disgraceful evisceration of the earlier sensible draft shows yet again why we need full transparency at the European Commission. We need to know who met with whom, and what was said. Until we do, these kinds of last-minutes stitch-ups will continue to occur, and will continue to add further blots to the Commission's already besmirched record in this regard.

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