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10 November 2009, 10:12

Protests against proposed redefinition of open standards within the EU

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An unofficial new draft of an amended EU interoperability framework for e-government services has fuelled the dispute over the definition of open standards. Open source associations have criticised the fact that the draftPDF of a planned amendment to the European Interoperability Framework (EIF) published by a Dutch journalist includes patented and proprietary solutions in an "openness continuum". They are concerned that this could significantly restrict the usability of open source software in public administration.

An open letter from Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) president Karsten Gerloff to the EU member states complains that, "In its current form, the text is a threat to the interoperability of European eGovernment services, and a recipe to maintain and even increase vendor lock-in". He continues by stating that the "clear definition" of open standards from the first version of the EIF has been abandoned and that the term openness is being twisted to include "proprietary positions". He adds that this runs contrary to statements by EU competition commissioner Neelie Kroes that Brussels "should not rely on one software vendor and must not accept closed standards," and that anything else would damage the European software industry.

The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) also believes, that the proposed approach would completely undermine interoperability between different IT system components. According to the FFII, the framework published by the Directorate-General for Informatics as part of its Interoperable Delivery of European eGovernment Services to Public Administrations, Businesses and Citizens (IDABC) programme is "referenced around the world because it includes a clear definition of the professional term 'open standard'." A statement by FFII president Benjamin Henrion opines that Microsoft and other large companies have lobbied the European Commission to rewrite the document to exclude free software by means of patent royalties. It is, according to Henrion, unacceptable that even "patent cartels" should fulfil the requirements imposed by the document.

Henrion also fears that the proposal could be incompatible with the European Union Public License (EUPL), licenses compatible with it, and with national legislation in some member states. Permitting patent cartels to operate in the public sector would, in his opinion, also represent indirect assent to highly controversial software patents, thereby bypassing the democratic process and the opinions and concerns of many Europeans. The FFII has therefore released ten recommendations for maintaining the key role of open standards within the document.

Until now, the EIF has required that standards be developed by non-commercial organisations and published either free of charge or for a nominal fee. IP rights, in particular patent rights, which impact a standard must also be made " irrevocably available on a royalty-free basis." This is important for ensuring that standards can be implemented in both proprietary and open source software without being restricted by commercial property rights. Lobbying organisations such as the Business Software Alliance (BSA) prefer "RAND" (Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory) licenses. These generally require users to pay, monetarily or in kind, for using standards licensed under this scheme – this in turn is incompatible with the principles of free software.

The draft, which US media have traced back to the Polish interior ministry, talks of "varying degrees of openness". It places specifications, software and software development methods that promote collaboration, freely access and reusability at one end of the spectrum, and "non-documented, proprietary specifications and software," at the other. Between the two lies an "openness continuum". The draft also maintains that interoperability can be achieved without openness, in, for example, homogenous IT systems in which all partners use the same solution to implement a public service.

A European Commission spokesman has described the comprehensive amendment to the substance of the EIF as "just wording", adding that "the message is still there and is still the same," and pointing out that the paper is still under review. The new version was originally scheduled for publication, following public consultation, in June. (Stefan Krempl)


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