EIFv2: EC breaks interop, then bows to public protest?

This week, Dutch journalist Brenno de Winter published a leaked draft for a new version of the European Interoperability Framework (EIF).

The current version of the EIF, from 2004, has been referenced around the world as a prime example of how public administrations can make use of Open Standards and Free Software in order to make their IT systems work together. It included a relatively good definition of Open Standards (though FSFE uses a stronger one). The leaked draft is a disaster for interoperability. Where the current EIF is crisp and clear (well, for a policy document), this text is full of emtpy statements.

Instead, it has the ridiculous idea of an “openness continuum”, which Glyn Moody dissects in all its glorious silliness:

Got that? “Closed” lies at one end of the *open* spectrum, which conveniently means we can *include* closed solutions in the interoperability framework because they are part of that continuum.

How did the EC get to this draft? The European Commission produced a consultation document and held a public consultation from June to September 2008. It received no fewer than 53 comments from businesses, industry associations and citizens.

Yet the comments that were submitted are largely not reflected or even addressed in the document. Comments referring to open standards, Free Software and the concept of openness in general were silently dropped. The definition of open standards, which the consultation document had carried over from EIFv1, magically disappeared.

The consultation ended in September 2008, and the new version of the EIF was supposed to be published in June 2009. But it wasn’t. Instead we got infighting between different DGs.

The new text also looks a lot as if the people who are in charge of procuring software for the European Commission are simply trying to justify their practice of buying proprietary programs that don’t work with Open Standards.1. This goes directly against statements such as the following by Commissioner Neelie Kroes:

“The European Commission should not rely on one software vendor and must not accept closed standards”.2

The reaction to the draft has been very strong. FSFE has sent a letter (below) to the people in member states of the EU who are in charge of eGovernment, telling them that this draft is unacceptable, that it will hurt the public sector (along with European citizens), and discredit the European institutions. The FFII has joined in with 10 recommendations to improve the draft.

Latest news indicate that our strong response is generating results. The EC is now spinning the text as a document that was just intended to test public opinion.

Sure, that’ll be it. The EC drafts an extensive document, holds a public consultation, puts the text under wraps for a year, ignores its own deadlines – and then leaks a text that has very little to do with the one the public had last seen. Just a test. Nothing to see here, move on.

More likely, the “it’s just a test” argument is an attempt to pull the emergency brake on a discussion that ‘s going awfully badly for the people who twisted the document. Looks rather like someone in Brussels is very nervous right now.

1 As evidenced e.g. by the “Interinstitutional Licensing Agreement” which the EC concluded with Microsoft in May 2007.

2 Speech at OpenForumEurope Breakfast Seminar, Brussels, June 10 2008.

FSFE’s letter to EU Member States:

Dear CIO and Head of eGovernment,

Since 2004, the European Interoperability Framework (EIF) has helped guide Member States of the Euroean Union to build their eGovernment services in a way that lets such services work with each other. In this first version, the EIF was an important enabler for the delivery of pan-European eGovernment services to citizens and enterprises.

This valuable instrument is now in danger. The draft for the second version of the EIF, which has been distributed to Member States and leaked to the press this week, is a cause for serious concern about the future of interoperability in Europe.

Unlike the first version of the EIF, the present draft does not provide leadership for the European public sector. Instead of taking Europe forward, the text’s passive stance on openness means that it fails to meet the high standards set by the first version of the EIF.

FSFE’s main concerns regarding the present draft are the lack of transparency in the drafting process, and the failure to include Open Standards as a crucial element of interoperability

Today is the final day for EU Member States to comment on the draft. For the reasons described below, FSFE urges you to register your opposition to this highly deficient document with the European Commission. We also ask you to contact other Member States, urging them to delay the adoption of the current text until a new Commissioner has had a chance to refocus the discussion.

Lack of transparency

FSFE notes a clear lack of transparency and openness in the process which led to the present draft for version 2 of the EIF. The European Commission produced a consultation document [1] and held a public consultation [2] from June to September 2008, gathering no fewer than 53 comments [3] from businesses, industry associations and citizens.

Yet the comments that were submitted are largely not reflected or even addressed in the document. Comments referring to open standards, Free Software (also known as “open source”) and the concept of openness in general were silently dropped. The definition of open standards which were present in the consultation document have been largely removed.

These changes from the consultation document can only be explained by pressure that has been exerted on the European Commission outside the democratic and transparent processes to which European institutions are bound. Member states should not reward or justify such practices with their support.

Threat to interoperability

In its current form, the text is a threat to the interoperability of European eGovernment services, and a recipe to maintain and even increase vendor lock-in.

The draft abolishes the clear definition of Open Standards used in EIF version 1, and replaces it with the notion of an “openness continuum” which includes proprietary standards and software. This notion of such an “openness continuum” abuses the term “openness” to support proprietary positions. By the same token, Free Software as a major instrument in the delivery of interoperability has been all but removed from the text.

It appears that the drafters of the document are trying to adapt the EC’s strategy of moving towards Open Standards to their actual regrettable practice of procuring proprietary software on a large scale [4]. This goes directly against statements such as the following by Commissioner Neelie Kroes:

“The European Commission should not rely on one software vendor and must not accept closed standards”. [5]

“Homogeneity” of proprietary ICT systems is in no way a replacement for open standards. Procurement, which forms the link between strategy and effective adoption of interoperable ICT systems, is ignored in the draft text.

Core points which are sorely lacking in the present draft text are:

- the clear definition of open standards from EIF version 1, or a stronger definition such as the one provided by FSFE [6].

- a clear distinction software which is based on open standards and specifications, as well as Free Software, from proprietary software.

Conclusions

The current text is not a viable successor to version 1 of the EIF. Instead of leading Europe forward into an interoperable future, it will promote vendor lock-in, block interoperability of eGovernment services, and damage the European software economy. If adopted, it will be a testament to the power which is exerted outside democratic and transparent processes, and will give rise to Euro-scepticism.

FSFE appeals to you to urge the European Commission to withdraw the current draft, in order to avoid replacing the sound and and widely accepted EIF version 1 with an extremely weak text prepared in an intransparent process. At stake are both interoperability in the public sector and the credibility of European institutions.

Kind regards,

Karsten Gerloff

President, Free Software Foundation Europe

[1] http://ec.europa.eu/idabc/servlets/Doc?id=31597

[2] http://ec.europa.eu/idabc/en/document/7733

[3] http://ec.europa.eu/idabc/en/document/7732

[4] As evidenced by the “Interinstitutional Licensing Agreement” which the EC concluded with Microsoft in May 2007.

[5] Speech at OpenForumEurope Breakfast Seminar, Brussels, June 10 2008

[6] http://fsfe.org/projects/os/def.en.html