Technology companies that want to sell software in Europe, will find they are soon subject to new rules governing the interoperability of their products.
Wholesale reform of the way Europe approaches IT standards is on the cards, including regulating dominant companies to make their products more interoperable, legislation to force declaration of embedded intellectual property in technologies proposed as standards, overhaul of European standard-setting bodies, and an renewed commitment to steering public bodies towards choosing open products over de facto standards.
An outline of the upcoming overhaul was articulated by Neelie Kroes, European Commission vice president for the Digital Agenda, in a speech given to the Open Forum Europe 2010 Summit in Brussels today.
Kroes identified five standards issues she will focus on over the five years of her reign as Digital Agenda VP:
- Ex-ante disclosure of IP in technologies proposed as standards, so that no standards are ambushed by hidden patents and ransomed by royalties
- Detailed standards guidance for public sector tenders
- Establish version 2 of the European Interoperability Framework so that public bodies have to comply with open standards procurement rules or justify why they haven't
- Overhaul the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) to ensure it fast-tracks globally applicable internet standards such as from the W3 Consortium.
- Regulate dominant market players to ensure they “cannot just choose to deny interoperability with their products”
It is the latter that will irk IT vendors the most as it will force them to publish open APIs for their products and prevent them from delaying such action through protracted court battles.
“I had to fight hard and for several years until Microsoft began to license missing interoperability information,” said Kroes, referring to the bitter legal battles which as Competition Commissioner from 2004, she engaged with Microsoft over interoperability in server products and browser choice in the Windows operating system.
“The Commission should not need to run an epic antitrust case every time software lacks interoperability,” she added. “Wouldn't it be nice to solve all such problems in one go?”
While Kroes said she would prefer to arrive at regulation by consent, she said she has not ruled out legislation.
Ex-ante disclosure of IP is already established in some standards application procedures but it should be a universal regulation, Kroes told the audience.
“I have nothing against intellectual property being brought to the standard-setting table, but it must be disclosed,” said Kroes.
Some public sector organisations in mainland Europe already interpret the European Interoperability Framework (EIF) 1 as having comparable force to regulations. For example, public sector bodies in the Netherlands already operate a "comply or explain" policy.
EIF 2, Kroes explained, would establish this policy at a much higher level, making it close to mandatory for the public sector to choose open standards-based products. This is important in terms of enabling public sector organisations to collaborate across national borders, she said.
Meanwhile, proposals for reforming the ETSI will be finalised by the end of the year, Kroes promised.
“We want to make standard-setting more efficient, not more burdensome,” she assured the audience. “We want smart rules that are adapted to their respective fields. We should have the right rules in the right contexts.”
Even given her five-year tenure as Digital Agenda VP, this will not be an easy programme to see through, Kroes admitted.
“We can't change all this in one year, and there will be plenty who try to stop change. But I still want that change,” she concluded.
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