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30 March 2010, 17:32

Watering down European standards

by Robert Seetzen

EU Logo The concept of open IT standards, which is central to the European Interoperability Framework (EIF), is to be watered down to such a degree that it will fade into insignificance. At least that's the impression given by a current EIF 2 release leaked to the Free Software Foundation Europe.

The internationally recognised European Interoperability Framework (EIF) for using open standards is to lose further weight and definition during the version 2 revision process. After a first draft became public in November 2009, a new EIF 2 "Release Candidate" leaked in March has added further fuel to the earlier criticism.

In version 1 of the European Interoperability Framework, which was released in 2004, the EU describes important basic requirements for the seamless interoperability between the IT infrastructures of various public authorities and institutions. Open standards such as data protocols and file formats play a central role in this framework. However, there is controversy about what comprises an open standard: In the currently effective version of the EIF, for instance, the irrevocable renunciation of any potential patent claims is a prerequisite for a file format or protocol to be accepted as an open standard. However, in EIF version 2, organisations such as the Business Software Alliance (BSA), representing a number of commercial software vendors, want to see patented standards which are subject to licence fees also permitted as open standards.

The latest version of the EIF 2 document recently leaked to the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) replaces the original unequivocal definition of open standards with vague, non-binding formulations. Furthermore, a comparative analysis of several framework revisions carried out by the FSFE concludes that no practical improvements have been made over the heavily criticised November 2009 edition.

Watered down

The new draft, for instance, no longer lists homogeneous infrastructures and monopolised solutions used across Europe as alternatives to open standards; however, these particularly controversial concepts have now been replaced by strikingly weak formulations which contain no practical calls to action. The draft now advises that while generally striving for open standards, European public bodies should always consider factors such as the budget and the market situation.

FSFE President Karsten Gerloff fears that the new version of the EIF will inhibit rather than accelerate overdue IT innovation. He says "This original EIF put a lot of emphasis on Open Standards and Free Software. In its current state, EIFv2 would do only one thing: Cement the vendor lock-in and network effects that are keeping too many public bodies from migrating to Free Software and Open Standards" . This presents a problematic situation to EU citizens as, Gerloff continues, "most citizens will continue to be forced to use proprietary file formats to communicate with their authorities". He feels that someone who needs to communicate with a public authority, has to open their documents or needs to create a valid official document, should not be forced to use proprietary software.

Considering that the November EIF draft appeared to provoke considerable objection from EU member countries, Gerloff is surprised by the general tenor of the new document. In his opinion, the European Commission is disregarding the member states by presenting a draft that essentially offers no improvements. Gerloff also takes a clear position on the framework's development history: "The EC’s Directorate General for Informatics (DIGIT) apparently dragged it into a dark basement and beat it up beyond recognition... There was a marked lack of transparency in the process."

Gerloff counts on concerned citizens to help trigger a change of course for this strategically important paper. As the new EIF version has yet to be adopted by the member states, the person responsible in each member country is usually a 'Chief Information Officer', or CIO in short" – in Germany, for example, this task falls to the Federal IT Commissioner while in the UK this is handled by the CIO Council – Gerloff suggests that citizens email their home country's CIO with a call to reject the current EIF draft. Gerloff says "Other DGs of the EC should intervene and simply throw the text into the dustbin, take the consultation draft from the summer of 2008, and start again from there."

Chronology of the European Interoperability Framework

  • July 2003: Motion to formulate the EIF at the eGovernment Conference in Como
  • November 2004: Release of the European Interoperability Framework 1.0
  • August 2006: Start of a study by Gartner Group in preparation of a reformulation of the EIF
  • June 2007: PublicationPDF of the Gartner study on the IDABC website
  • June 25, 2008: EIF Info Day in Brussels
  • July 18, 2008: Start of the consultation process; consultation is based on a EIF2 draftPDF
  • September 22, 2008: Completion of the public consultation process, resulting in a list of comments
  • December 8, 2008: Publication of a summaryPDF of the comments
  • November 1, 2009: Release of a EIF2 working version on a Dutch blog
  • November 2009: Protests begin to emerge against the redefinition of open standards in the EU
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