The European Commission has watered down plans to mandate usage of open standards for European public services. Instead it will allow the use of open specifications, while patents and paid licences will no longer be taboo.
Last year a public draft of the European Interoperability Framework for European Public Services (EIF) version 2.0 underwent scrutiny from several interest groups. The response was generally overwhelmingly positive.
However a more recent non-public draft obtained by IDG's Dutch IT news site Webwereld has undergone major changes and doesn't speak about open standards at all. The new version of the draft has been sent to the EU member states for revision.
The version 1.0 that was accepted in 2004 demanded open standards. It defined three characteristics of an open standard: It had to be maintained by a public body, it had to be free or available for a nominal fee, and patents were only allowed if there was a irrevocable royalty-free licence.
Last year's draft for version 2.0 still positioned open standards as a tool to enable fair competition and create a level playing field. In that text the authors even went so far as to state that "Practices distorting the definition of open standards or technical specifications should be addressed by protecting the integrity of the standardisation process".
Furthermore, "Practices distorting the evolution of open standards must also be addressed. In order to be considered an open standard, the candidate in question must be considered in its entirety, including any and all extensions. Products implementing nonstandardised extensions to the standards should be considered as noncompliant."
The most recent draft only addresses an open specification that needs to have a public review, is open for stakeholders to amend, is freely available to share and review, and finally can be implemented by different software development approaches. "It is up to the creators of any particular specification to decide how open they want their specification to be", the document now states.
Also the clause making this a binding requirement has been abandoned: "However, public administrations may decide to use less open specifications, especially in cases where open specifications do not meet the functional interoperability needs or the ones available are not mature and/or sufficiently supported by the market, or where all cooperating organizations already use or agree to use the same technologies."
This opens the way to choose de facto standards over their open counterparts. Such a move effectively means that a specific software solution can replace the role a standard used to play. This is practically paving the way for Commission-sanctioned implementation of proprietary solutions.
The importance of a level playing field in the market doesn't seem to have survived this revision of the document. Given the current text there isn't an obligation to give a royalty free license for any patents effecting the "open specification".
Several European countries have introduced legislation forcing government bodies to embrace open standards. Among those are the Netherlands where parliament unanimously adopted a plan in 2007. This was to lessen the dependency on dominant suppliers and ensure the availability of data into the future. The European Commission reviewed the plan and tested it against the rules as laid down in EIF version 1.0.
"This seems to be a backward step and that is worrisome," acknowledged Edwin van Scherrenburg, spokesperson for Economic Affairs undersecretary Frank Heemskerk. He said the Netherlands is currently working on a response and until that has been drafted he cannot comment any further.
According to Serge Novaretti, responsible for European Interoperability Strategy at the European Commission, the change isn't that remarkable. He stressed that this version is "only a draft" and that the debate is still ongoing. "The message is still there and is still the same," he said. "It's just wording."
"As this is only a draft and as such may still be subject to change before being finalized, you will understand that it is impossible for us to answer your questions at this very moment," wrote Karel De Vriendt, Head of Unit European eGovernment Services (IDABC) with the European Commission. "Of course, once the document is finalised, the Commission will be in a position to do so."
Microsoft, the only party highly critical towards the previous version of the draft, declined to comment. Hans Bos, National Technology Officer (NTO) at Microsoft Netherlands and a critic of the Dutch open standards plan, said that a response will follow as soon as Version 2.0 is no longer a draft.