The European Commission Timidly Commits to Opening it's Source Codes and Contributing to Free Software

Following its "Open Source Software Strategy 2020 – 2023", published in October 2020, the European Commission formalizes its goals and practices in its decision "on the open source licensing and reuse of Commission software" – an important document, as the Commission can be held accountable for it. Like the above-mentioned strategy, this decision doesn't demonstrate much political ambition, nonetheless it sets a useful baseline and confirms the Commission's will to amplify its use of free software, and contribute more to it.

Download the english version of the decision (PDF)

The decision mainly appears to establish a framework for publishing software produced by the Commission's services under free licenses. This isn't trivial politically. Because of its importance, this administration can set a strong precedence and inspire others. Unfortunately, as it did in its 2020 strategy, the Commission dilutes what seems to be a sincere will to make larger use of free software and contribute more to it. The general principle set forth in article 3 is weak and disappointing : "Commission services may choose to make Commission software available for reuse." Furthermore, article 4 draws a wide range of exceptions to the decision, notably an exception in case of "risk to the security of the information systems" that has no rational basis. An ambitious strategy should make distribution of software as free software the standard, not a duly substantiated exception.

The Commission's reluctance towards an ambitious policy can be perfectly summed up by the opening statement of its press release : ''Today, the Commission has adopted new rules on Open Source Software that will enable its software solutions to be publicly accessible whenever there are potential benefits for citizens, companies or other public services." To measure the usefulness of this move by what it might enable makes very little sense. Freedom of access, modification and reuse must be defended and promoted per se; not only because it's a democratic imperative, but also because it allows for the broadest expressions of creativity and talents.

These basic criticisms of the decision shouldn't prevent us from taking note of the positive measures it contains, which will need to be confirmed. First, article 9 of the decision states that the Commission's services "shall be allowed to take part in and contribute to external open source projects". This explicit authorization is to be acknowledged. Secondly, the decision states that it "shall use a repository as a single point of access to Commission software to facilitate access to and reuse of said software". We will see what form it will take1. It is worth noting that the Commission would fully be in its role in creating and maintaining a public software development platform, which could be available to member states administrations that are sometimes dependent – such as in France – to privately owned platforms (for profit and not).

Finally, some questions remain, especially in regards to some of the definitions adopted (article 2). The notion of "reuse" matches the definitions of the four freedoms and allows for commercial purposes. However, the definitions of "licence" and especially "open source licence" leave room for uncertainties and conditionalities that might open the way to harmful interpretations. And why not specifically name the FSF's and OSI's license lists 2 which are widely recognized as the sole standards for determining whether or not a license qualifies as free ? Caution is all the more important that this decision formalizes the definitions adopted by the Commission for time to come. April will look more closely into these questions.