Open Source and Open Standards under Threat in Europe
Published 09:34, 29 March 10
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.
Ensuring that European ICT standardisation is compatible with open source solutions has several other major benefits. First, it means that European software houses can compete on an equal footing with large overseas software companies, which is likely to increase their turnover and employment, particularly among SMEs. Second, deploying open source means that there is no huge outflow of software licensing funds, resulting in more money being retained within the European economy.
Because of the low entry costs of open source, it is easier for people to use them to learn about digital technology at school or at home - especially among the more disadvantaged members of society that are unable to afford expensive dollar-priced software licences on top of hardware costs. It is worth remembering that perhaps the best-known open source program, Linux, was created by a 21-year-old student in his Helsinki bedroom on a simple PC because he couldn't afford to buy the commercial equivalent. Mandating open standards that are compatible with open source allows digital skills to be acquired more easily and hence enhances social mobility and equity within Europe.
Open standards that support open source are also vital for industry; indeed, they are already widely deployed there. For example, both the consumer electronics and automotive industries are using solutions based on Linux to increase standardisation, speed up development and to drive down costs. The rapid uptake of the Linux-based Android operating system for mobile phones is another instance of where open standards and open source have created a rich and vibrant software ecosystem in a very short time, with enormous benefits to industry and end-users.
The European Commission already has an exemplary definition of open standards, which was laid down in the European Interoperability Framework released in 2004:
“To attain interoperability in the context of pan-European eGovernment services, guidance needs to focus on open standards. The following are the minimal characteristics that a specification and its attendant documents must have in order to be considered an open standard:
The standard is adopted and will be maintained by a not-for-profit organisation, and its ongoing development occurs on the basis of an open decision-making procedure available to all interested parties (consensus or majority decision etc.).
The standard has been published and the standard specification document is available either freely or at a nominal charge. It must be permissible to all to copy, distribute and use it for no fee or at a nominal fee.
The intellectual property - i.e. patents possibly present - of (parts of) the standard is made irrevocably available on a royalty-free basis.
There are no constraints on the re-use of the standard.”
I would therefore like to urge the European Commission to retain this excellent definition of open standards in the European Interoperability Strategy for European Public Services. I would also strongly urge an explicit recognition of the value of open source as a way of implementing open standards and hence of bringing the Digital Agenda to fruition.
The opening up of borders and the removal of barriers lie at the heart of the European Union project: it is only appropriate that the same grand vision of openness should inform the European Interoperability Strategy.
The extraordinary gulf between the original and proposed versions of the EIF gives us perhaps a hint of what is going on behind the scenes, but on its own might not be sufficient grounds for concern about the Digital Agenda itself. But last week a series of worrying tweets were posted by David Hammerstein, whose Twitter bio is “European Advocate for Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue. Spanish Green Member European Parliament 2004-2009”. They read as follows:
SOS to everyone as sources confirm that Kroes is about to eliminate "open standards" policy from EU digital agenda
Kroes has been under intense lobbying pressure from Microsoft to get rid of interoperability and open source goals of EU
Kroes wanted the EU institutions to practice what it preaches and migrate to open standards in its own software. Big backlash
DG enterprise and "revolving door" EC officials from Microsoft torpedo Commissioner Kroes open proposals. Coup in process.
As to those “sources” he mentions, I've been following Hammerstein for a while on Twitter, and he does seem to have very good contacts within the European Union machine – doubtless from his time as an MEP. Moreover, the French site PC Inpact not only confirms Hammerstein's fears, but it has also managed to get hold of a copy of the draft Agenda. Here's what the latter says about open standards [.doc]:
The headline target for this action area is to reform the EU standardisation regime by 2015 to reflect the rise and growing importance of ICT standards developed by various fora and consortia, in particular as regards the internet.
Another challenge is to ensure that public authorities – including the EU institutions – can make the best use of the full range of existing open standards when procuring hardware, software and IT services, for example to adhere to technology neutrality and to avoid technological lock-in to legacy ICT.
Transparent disclosure rules for intellectual property rights (IPR) and licensing conditions in the context of standard-setting can contribute to lower royalty demands for the use of standards and thus to lower market entry costs for SMEs. This can be achieved without a negative impact on the owners of IPRs. Therefore rules for ex-ante disclosure of essential IPR and licensing terms and conditions will be promoted.
That's clearly balanced and sensible – and therefore probably anathema to Microsoft and its friends who would prefer something more along the lines of the leaked draft of the EIF with its redefinitions of openness to the point of meaninglessness.
What I fear is happening is that a similar watering-down of the sections on open standards in the Agenda is being pushed on to Kroes. So the question becomes: what can we do about it?
Hammerstein has some practical suggestions:
Please write to Commissioners Almunia, Barnier, Tajani and Kroes demanding:
Policies and funding promoting openness in the ICT market.
Energetic policies in the public sphere in favour of open standards and open source software in public institutions starting with the EU that presently locks out open source software.
EU policies that mandate and legislate for interoperability.
An open economy of innovation that provides choice to consumers and an interactive digital sphere for all citizens whatever their operating systems are.
Democratic institutions with democratic IT systems that are not dictated by Microsoft.
A EU policy of public procurement, competition and internal market that respects Community Law with regards to anti-trust and a fair playing field for all IT products.
Here are the contact addresses for those four key people:
Joaquín Almunia: submit using web form on that page
Michel Barnier: direct email - Michel.Barnier@ec.europa.eu
Antonio Tajani: direct email - CAB-TAJANI-WEBPAGE@ec.europa.eu
Neelie Kroes: submit to assistant - firstname.lastname@example.org
I've submitted a modified version of my comment on the European Interoperability Strategy, printed above. David Hammerstein has posted a sample letter here.
I urge everyone who can to send at least a short email drawing on these (but not copying them directly, since this actually *weakens* their impact) to the four European Commissioner, expressing their support for true open standards and open source to be part of the EU's interoperability requirements, and to do it soon, please: the Agenda is being presented on 27 April, and will obviously be finalised well before that. If we don't, we're liable to wake up in a few weeks' time with a Digital Agenda that's actively hostile to openness in many of its key forms.