Neelie Kroes on Open Standards

Here’s my opinion on a speech by Neelie Kroes (EU Commissioner for Digital Agenda) about “How to get more interoperability in Europe”, held on 2010-06-10. You can find the full text here.

“I will start with a confession: I am still a big fan of open standards. I believe in openness, and I believe in practising what one preaches.”

Sound’s good, doesn’t say much, though. 😉

“Some observers think “open standards” is a tainted term that should not to be used in the absence of a generally recognised definition. Others act as if a policy document that does not mention “open standards” would automatically lack merit. My position is in between: I don’t believe that listing keywords can substitute for policy. Whatever the labels, what matters is the substance. I would urge all stakeholders to focus on the content of the package rather than the wrapping.”

I can’t say I disagree about content being more important than the label. However, it is well-known that terms can be and have been chosen or misinterpreted intentionally to suit someone’s interests. Yes, we should avoid unnecessary hassle, but still be careful about this.

The first parts of the speech are mostly about why open standards are useful: better standards, better implementation, more competition, avoiding vendor lock-ins, etc., and all of that saves money. This is mixed with some general political ideas about how to promote open standards. Nothing too interesting, until the end of the “avoiding vendor lock-ins”-part:

“It is even worse when such decisions result in the waste of private money on top. That happens where the public authorities’ decisions force citizens to buy specific products (rather than any product compliant with an applicable standard) in order to make use of a public service. This could be your kid’s school insisting on the use of a specific word processing system or your tax department’s online forms requiring a specific web browser.”

Finally! Situations like this have annoyed me for a long time. I hope Ms. Kroes will not stop at recognizing the problem and take steps against it. After this, she talks about the proposed new version of the “European Interoperability Framework”:

“For me, it is a fundamental tenet that public administrations spending tax-payers’ money should opt for the least constraining solution that meets the requirements for a given need. Such a rule, as the default, would shield public authorities from the dangers of long-term lock-in. It would also ensure competition between suppliers for follow-up contracts and for services. Opting for closed solutions would be possible, but on the basis of a clear justification, rather than because it was the easy option.”

That would definitely be a step into the right direction, and it would help solving the problem of forcing citizens to use a certain product as mentioned before. However, I would like to see an additional rule that requires the development of an open replacement if a closed solution was chosen (in case of software: a Free Software solution). The last part of the speech is about how “to ensure that significant market players cannot just choose to deny interoperability with their product.”

“The Commission should not need to run an epic antitrust case every time software lacks interoperability. Wouldn’t it be nice to solve all such problems in one go?

Therefore I am looking for a way to ensure companies offer the required information for licensing. We are thinking very hard about how this could be achieved. Any such initiative would probably be limited to certain types of IT products. And it would likely involve some form of pricing constraints.

[…] Just to be clear, while it is still early days, it is certainly possible that I will go for a legislative proposal.”

Now this is really interesting. Does that mean that we might get a law that forces software vendors (or other parties involved) to release documentation of their file formats, protocols or similar things? “Pricing constraints” sounds like demanding royalties would still be allowed, but at least no arbitrary amounts. While I don’t think having to pay for access to a standard definition is right, this would avoid lock-ins anyway. Well, at least as long as there are no other restrictions involved – the word “patent” is not mentioned in the speech.

My proposals

  1. Definition of Open Standards: Choose the W3C definition! The W3C’s process is proven in practice to provide high quality and widely adopted standards. This is what people expect when they hear the term “open standard”. And it is the right thing to do anyway – knowledge must be free!
  2. Public agencies should use only standards compliant solutions, no loopholes! This avoids lock-ins for the them and trouble for the public (see above). I’d like to see a preference for Free Software, especially in education.
  3. Forcing vendors to release file formats and similar documentation is also a matter of consumer protection, because consumers can become victims of lock-in, too. Royalties should not be necessary. The previous proposal might solve most of this due to the important role of public spending in the market.
  4. Stop software patents! Free access to a standard definition of limited use if it may not be implemented.


Ms. Kroes’ speech ended:

“We can’t change all of this in one year, and there will be plenty who try to stop change. But I still want that change, and I will keep coming back and speaking to you until we achieve it.”

If she can make this happen, it will be a huge step into the right direction. Not as far as I’d like, but hey, it’s a start! 🙂 My ideas for further improvement are mentioned above. What do you think?

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