EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes reaffirms the importance of interoperability and open standards

Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes gave a speech on open standards and interoperability during Open Forum Europe 2010 in Brussels on Thursday, June 10th 2010. She underlined in her speech how important those two notions were, which reassured April after its concerns were raised by the absence of open standards in the Digital Agenda. Commissioner Kroes declared that she was "a big fan of open standards" which she defined unequivocally as standards that "do not come with any constraints for implementers".

Although this recognition of open standards and interoperability is without any doubt a positive step, Neelie Kroes did not give any guarantee on their legal recognition at EU level. On the contrary, she sang the same old tune as the rest of the Commission, presenting openness as a continuum despite the fact that openness of standards amounts to the lack of limitations: there is no such thing as openness degrees, there are only degrees in closure. April consequently regrets that Commissioner Kroes did not really commit to truly open standards1, which are the only way to ensure real interoperability. Taking such a stand would have been even more crucial in the current context of negotiations on the European Interoperability Framework in which open standards are threatened.

Above all, it is a pity, especially since Commissioner Kroes has also had a very correct and fair analysis of the dangers of proprietary formats. She already stigmatized the way "many authorities have found themselves unintentionally locked into proprietary technology for decades. After a certain point that original choice becomes so ingrained that alternatives risk being systematically ignored, no matter what the potential benefits. This is a waste of public money that most public bodies can no longer afford."

She then pointed out the consequences of such choices on citizens: "it is even worse when such 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.". Commissioner Kroes thus stressed the importance of public authorities choosing interoperability and open standards2. April is satisfied that this threat is being taken into account, since it had already put it forward in its letter to the European Commission.

Neelie Kroes recognised those threats and took up a critical argument on the importance of having open standards, that is to say standards without any restriction of use: "everybody who cares about interoperability should care about the financial conditions for the use of standards as well as the indirect constraints imposed on third parties: the fewer constraints the better". She emphasizes there the danger of FRAND licenses clauses3 about which she admits that "let's face it, establishing FRAND (Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory) prices is a hard task over which reasonable people often disagree". Such licenses are inherently contradictory to the ability to share information, and consequently are contrary to the core principles of healthy competition. However, the solution she offered here - ex ante disclosure of licensing rules - is dodging the issue altogether, because it does not guaranty any implementation of standards that can be truly used by everyone.

April welcomes the outcome of Kroes' speech: the non-use of open standards is recognized as a real threat (of lock-in, of limitations imposed on third parties, of discriminatory acquisition costs, etc). Reinforced by this analysis of the current situation, the Commission now needs to take concrete action in favor of open standards and interoperability. The integration of companies and citizens in the information society depends on it.

About April Founded in 1996, April is the main French advocacy association devoted to promote and protect Free/Libre Software. With its 5476 members (5004 individuals, 472 businesses, associations and organizations), April is a pioneer of Free Software in France. Since 1996, it is a major player in the democratization and the spread of free software and open standards to the general public, professionals and institutions in the French-speaking world. It also acts as a watchdog on digital freedoms, warning the public about the dangers of private interests keeping an exclusive stranglehold on information and knowledge.