Open Source and Open Standards under Threat in Europe


Open source is under attack in Europe. Not openly or obviously, but in the background, behind closed doors. The battleground is the imminent Digital Agenda for Europe, due to be unveiled by the European Commission in a month's time, and which defines the overall framework for Europe's digital policy. According to people with good contacts to the politicians and bureaucrats drawing up the Agenda, Microsoft is lobbying hard to ensure that open standards and open source are excluded from that policy - and is on the brink of succeeding in that aim.

We need to get as many people as possible writing to the key Commissioners *now* if we are to stop them. Details of who to write to are given below. To help you frame things, here's some background on what's at stake.

The battle over open source and open standards is taking place in the context of the European Commission's efforts to promote interoperability, which it has been working on for some years now. In 2004, it came out with the European Interoperability Framework (EIF). This was a technologically-savvy document that noted:

Open Source Software (OSS) tends to use and help define open standards and publicly available specifications. OSS products are, by their nature, publicly available specifications, and the availability of their source code promotes open, democratic debate around the specifications, making them both more robust and interoperable. As such, OSS corresponds to the objectives of this Framework and should be assessed and considered favourably alongside proprietary alternatives

That's clearly very positive about open standards and open source. And then, back in November of last year, a draft version of the revised EIF was leaked [.pdf]. It revealed a staggering re-definition of what openness meant by suggesting that “closed” was part of the “openness continuum”:

There are varying degrees of openness.

Specifications, software and software development methods that promote collaboration and the results of which can freely be accessed, reused and shared are considered open and lie at one end of the spectrum while non-documented, proprietary specifications, proprietary software and the reluctance or resistance to reuse solutions, i.e. the "not invented here" syndrome, lie at the other end. The spectrum of approaches that lies between these two extremes can be called the openness continuum.

Since then, things were quiet on the interoperability front until a consultation on the European Interoperability Strategy appeared in February.

Comments can be submitted using an online survey, with a cut off of 6 April. This is actually a kind of structured upload tool, allowing you to send your comments in the form of documents. The questions are very limited, and perhaps the most relevant one for the open source community is the “General remarks on the EIS or on specific topics that are not adressed by the previous questions”. Here's what I've sent:

I am writing to you in connection with the European Interoperability Strategy for European Public Services. In my view the central issue for interoperability is the use of open standards that allow open source solutions to be deployed.

The Internet established itself as the global network of networks because it was based on open standards. Anyone could connect anything to it provided they followed those rules. Open standards were mainly implemented in open source software because existing software companies were at first uninterested in supporting those open standards, which they saw as a threat to their businesses based on lock-in to proprietary standards. It was only later, when those open standards had prevailed, and the Internet had become more widely used, that companies started implementing them and found that they did not, in fact, undermine their business models, but offered an even bigger market for them to serve.

This hints at the key role open standards and open source play in computer technology: they create a huge and level playing field for everyone – one that might otherwise be tilted by commercial interests intent on securing a monopolistic advantage through their proprietary technology.

What worked on the Internet also applies to government ICT. If completely open standards are mandated, any company can adopt them for its products and sell into the market based on them; this ensures there can be no lock-in to a given vendor's technology. If they are completely open, and not patent encumbered, open source solutions can also be deployed; these exert a powerful downward pressure on pricing and effectively serve to keep the traditional software companies “honest” in terms of implementing open standards by offering alternatives.

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