EU Digital Agenda scores 85/100

If the Digital Agenda was a bottle of wine and I were wine critic Robert Parker, I would say the Digital Agenda has "a great bouquet, many good elements, with astringent, dry and puckering mouth feel that will not please everyone, but still displaying some finesse. A somewhat controlled effort with no surprises and a few noticeable flaws in the delivery. Noticeably shorter aftertaste than advertised by the producers. Score: 85/100. Enjoy now".

The EU Digital Agenda states that "standards are vital for interoperability" and has a whole chapter on interoperability and standards. With this strong emphasis, there is hope the EU's outdated standardization system finally is headed for reform. It has been 23 years since the legal framework of standardisation was completed by Council Decision 87/95/EEC8 in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector.

Standardization is market driven. For several decades the IT industry has been developing standards and specifications in global open standards development organisations (fora/consortia), many of which have transparency procedures and practices far superior to the European Standards Organizations. The Digital Agenda rightly states: "reflecting the rise and growing importance of ICT standards developed by certain global fora and consortia". Some fora/consortia, of course, are distorted, influenced by single vendors, have poor track record, and need constant vigilance, but they are the minority. Therefore, the recognition needs to be accompanied by eligibility criteria focused on openness.

Will the EU reform its ICT standardization by the end of 2010? Possibly, and only if DG Enterprise takes on board that Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) have driven half of the productivity growth in Europe over the past 15 years, a prominent fact in the EU's excellent Digital Competitiveness report 2010 published on Monday 17 May. It is ok to single out the ICT sector. It simply is the most important sector right now as it fuels growth in all other sectors. Let's not wait for the entire standardization package which may take another few years. Europe does not have time.

The Digital Agenda is an umbrella strategy with deliveries from a host of actors across the Commission. For instance, the EU promises to issue "guidance on transparent ex-ante disclosure rules for essential intellectual property rights and licensing terms and conditions in the context of standard setting", by 2011 in the Horisontal Guidelines now out for public consultation by DG COMP and to some extent by DG ENTR's standardization policy reform. This is important.

The EU will issue procurement guidance as interoperability frameworks are put into practice. This is a joint responsibility of several DGs, and is likely to suffer coordination problems, controversy and delays. We have seen plenty of the latter already and I have commented on the Commission's own interoperability elsewhere, with mixed luck. :(

Yesterday, I watched the cartoonesque Korean western film The Good, the Bad and the Weird. In the movie (and I meant in the movie only), a bandit, a thief, and a bounty hunter, all excellent at whatever they do, fight for a treasure map. Whether that is a good analogy for the situation within the Commission, others are better judges of than I. However, as a movie fanatic, I still await the final shoot-out, and, as in the film, the only certainty is that "life is about chasing and being chased".

The missed opportunity (in this case not following up the push from Member States to better define open standards based interoperability) is a casualty of the chaos ensued in the European Wild West (and I mean that in the most endearing sense, and my excuses beforehand to actors who possibly justifiably cannot bear being compared to fictional movie characters). Instead of exposing the ongoing fight, the EU opted for the legalistic use of the term "standards" throughout the document. This is a term that--to the EU-- excludes most standards used by the IT industry world wide. So, while it, for a moment, meant "weapon down", it will not lead to lasting peace.

The Digital Agenda calls for the Member States to "Implement commitments on interoperability and standards in the Malmö and Granada Declarations by 2013". This is a far cry from the actual Ministerial Declarations which called upon the Commission to help them with this implementation by recognizing and further defining open standards based interoperability. Unless there is more forthcoming from the Commission, the market's judgement will be: you simply fall short.

Generally, I think the EU focus now should be "from policy to practice" and the Digital Agenda does indeed stop short of tackling some highly practical issues. There is need for progress beyond the Digital Agenda. Here are some suggestions that would help Europe re-take global leadership on openness, public sector reform, and economic growth:

  • A strong European software strategy centred around open standards based interoperability by 2011.

  • An ambitious new eCommission strategy for 2011-15 focused on migration to open standards by 2015.

  • Aligning the IT portfolio across the Commission into one Digital Agenda DG by 2012.

  • Focusing all best practice exchange in eGovernment on one social networking site, (full disclosure: I had a role in getting that site up and running)

  • Prioritizing public sector needs in global standardization over European standardization by 2014.


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Trond Undheim, Ph.D, Director of Standards Strategy and Policy at the Oracle Corporation, speaker, entrepreneur, blogger, and author, is one of the world’s leading experts on technology and society. LinkedIn profile


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