Proprietary technology is a waste of money, says Kroes

Expectations were high for Neelie Kroesspeech at yesterday’s OFE Summit, and she delivered. This was the first time that the European Commission’s vice president talked about the Digital Agenda which she recently published. I was also curious about any news on EIFv2 after the heated battles of the last months.

Her speech was the first time that she talked about the Digital Agenda in public, and she provided quite a bit of interpretation.  She also made more than clear that there was a huge fight about the Digital Agenda within the European Commission, saying there was “blood on the walls” in the EC. Unsurprisingly, those words don’t appear in the printed version of her speech, which was coordinated with the other Commissioners.

Proprietary technology is a “waste of public money”

She talked about citizens’ freedom to talk to the public sector without being chained to proprietary software. Kroes’ message was loud and clear, and its worth quoting here:

“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.”
“It is even worse when such decisions result in the waste of private money on top: That happens where public authorities’ 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 processor or your tax department’s online forms requiring a specific web browser.”

She thinks that public bodies should “opt for the least constraining solution”, and points to the Dutch “comply or explain” policy as an example. In the Netherlands, public bodies have to either procure software that relies on Open Standards, or give a very good reason for not doing so.

Open Standards means no constraints on implementation

On Open Standards, her message was clearer than I had dared to hope. Kroes said that “truly open” standards “do not come with any constraints for implementers”. That’s important, because Microsoft and others have been trying to convince the Commission that a standard is open even if it can’t be implemented in Free Software. With just this half-sentence, Kroes tells them to buzz off. Very enjoyable.

It’s an open question whether this will actually be the position of version 2 of the European Interoperability Framework (EIFv2), which Kroes said would be published this year. FSFE has documented the loss of interoperability in the subsequent drafts. As it turns out, a lot of the EC officials that I spoke to had read our analysis with interest.

In any case, Kroes’ speech is a welcome response to FSFE’s criticism when the Digital Agenda was published. It’s also what we’ve been hoping for. From the Agenda’s text, it’s not obvious how hard the Commission will push for Open Standards. Kroes’ speech was a welcome clarification. She very publicly backed the idea of Open Standards, and of citizens’ freedom to chose the software they want to use.

An interoperability directive?

Kroes mentioned a possible directive on software interoperability.  This would be a great initiative. Lobbying pressure would be intense, and we would have to work very hard to make sure it results in good rules, rather than another useless piece of paper.  But then things could hardly be worse than today, and you have to agree with Kroes that “the Commission should not need to run an epic antitrust case every time software lacks interoperability”.

As good as it gets, for now

Am I totally satisfied with her speech? Of course not. There was no indication that the Commission would finally start to seriously migrate to Free Software, and use Open Standards. (I hear that instead, they’re busy setting up Microsoft SharePoint.) There was no clear commitment to a strong definition of Open Standards in EIFv2.

But I’m not only an idealist, I’m also a realist. And realistically, her speech was the best that we’ll hear from a European Commissioner any time soon.

So we at FSFE are taking Neelie Kroes very seriously when she says that “I expect interested parties to mostly turn to me to demand progress [on the Digital Agenda] – and rightly so.” This is an offer to get involved, and we’ll take her up on it.