EU Standardization Reform Underway: Part I

Today, on 3 July 2009, the European Commission adopted a White Paper on 'Modernising ICT Standardisation in the EU', with the lovely name COM(2009) 324 final, outlining the thrust of a forthcoming legislative reform. In essence, it paves the way for the recognition of standards from fora/consortia like W3C, OASIS, and IETF alongside European Standardisation Organizations (ESOs) and international standard setting organisations (ISO, ITU, IEC).

Standardization is a major driver of competitiveness. ICT represents one of the key industrial sectors of the 21st century, and standardization reform will significantly impact EU growth. Importantly, the Commission underlines the importance of global open standards as well as important Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) concerns like transparency through mandatory ex ante declaration of licensing terms and royalty free licensing where needed to enhance software interoperability. The fact that the issues contained within is White Paper already have been discussed among key European stakeholders (governments, industry, SMEs, consumer organizations, etc.), means there is solid backing behind its main conclusions, as well as in the implied way forward. The Commission is now set to launch major legislative reform of European ICT Standardisation in the beginning of 2010, revising the outdated Council Decision 87/95.

Highlights in the White Paper include:

A strong emphasis on openness and transparency:

While industry can use any standards, public authorities have a strong preference for, or even an obligation to use standards resulting from open, transparent and inclusive processes.
Openness: The standardisation development process occurs within a non-profit making organisation on the basis of open decision making accessible to all interested parties. The open standardisation process is driven by the relevant stakeholder categories and reflects user requirements.
Declaration ex-ante of the most restrictive licensing terms, possibly including the (maximum) royalty rates before adoption of a standard, may be a means of improving the effectiveness of (F)RAND licensing since this can allow for competition on both technology and price.

Standards based procurement is encouraged:

The Commission suggests clarifying that when they are defined within the context of ICT strategies, architectures and interoperability frameworks, the implementation of standardised interfaces can be made a requirement in public procurement procedures, provided the principles of openness, fairness, objectivity and non-discrimination and the public procurement directives are applied.

A clear path for recognizing fora and consortia:

The Commission suggests promoting better cooperation between fora and consortia and ESOs on the basis of a process which would lead to standards issued by the ESOs.
public authorities should have the possibility, provided the right conditions are fulfilled, to depart from the general rule of referencing formal ESO standards. To that end the Commission could put in place a suitable procedure to enable the referencing of specific fora and consortia standards in legislation and policies.
The Commission suggests the establishment of a permanent, multistakeholder, ICT standardisation policy platform (with a wider membership than the Member State SOGITS Committee previously established by Council Decision 87/95/EEC) to advise the Commission on all matters related to the European ICT standardisation policy and its effective implementation

The Commission has opened a public consultation on the ICT Standardization Reform White Paper on the Your Europe portal, open until 15 September 2009. Despite the fact there is wide agreement in the European and global ICT industry about the importance of recognizing standards from fora/consortia, there are a few thorny issues that are likely to cause debate in the months to come. Expect some debate on the fine print surrounding IPR, the standardization needs of European software industry, and on the precise way to organize stakeholder input—and pressure from industry to finally get the legislative reform underway.

Summing up, mandatory ex ante disclosure, royalty free licensing for technologies included in standards that are essential for software interoperability, and full recognition of fora/consortia standards and specifications in EU policy and legislation is now a real possibility. Moreover, this approach is fully endorsed by the Commission.

While one would wish for EU standardization reform to go even further, calling for a more radical rewriting of the European system of regional and national standardization—taking into account global realities and the need for wide availability of open standards, what we have to look forward to in the near future is already a lot better than the current regime. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt about certain, smaller aspects of this reform should not overshadow the great accomplishment this White Paper represents. While there is still time to debate the fine print, the sign-off has been made.

With the White Paper as the foundation, an exciting legislative agenda is building up for 2010. Expect higher innovation in all sectors that deploy ICT standards in the time to come, and watch the efficiency of public sector ICT investments increase as open standards based openness takes a stronger hold on bureaucrats, programmers, consumers, and politicians alike. EU standardization reform is underway.


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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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