European Interoperability Framework - a new beginning?

The most controversial document in the history of the European Commission's IT policy is out. EIF is here, wrapped in the Communication "Towards interoperability for European public services", and including the new feature European Interoperability Strategy (EIS), arguably a higher strategic take on the same topic.

Leaving EIS aside for a moment, the EIF controversy has been around IPR, defining open standards and about the proper terminology around standardization deliverables. Today, as the document finally emerges, what is the verdict?

First of all, to be fair to those among you who do not spend your lives in the intricate labyrinths of Commission IT policy documents on interoperability, let's define what we are talking about. According to the Communication:

"An interoperability framework is an agreed approach to interoperability for organisations that want to collaborate to provide joint delivery of public services. Within its scope of applicability, it specifies common elements such as vocabulary, concepts, principles, policies, guidelines, recommendations, standards, specifications and practices."


The Good

- EIF reconfirms that "The Digital Agenda can only take off if interoperability based on standards and open platforms is ensured" and also confirms that "The positive effect of open specifications is also demonstrated by the Internet ecosystem."

- EIF takes a productive and pragmatic stance on openness:

"In the context of the EIF, openness is the willingness of persons, organisations or other members of a community of interest to share knowledge and stimulate debate within that community, the ultimate goal being to advance knowledge and the use of this knowledge to solve problems" (p.11).

"If the openness principle is applied in full:
- All stakeholders have the same possibility of contributing to the development of the specification and public review is part of the decision-making process;
- The specification is available for everybody to study;
- Intellectual property rights related to the specification are licensed on FRAND terms or
on a royalty-free basis in a way that allows implementation in both proprietary and open
source software" (p. 26).

- EIF is a formal Commission document. The former EIF 1.0 was a semi-formal deliverable from the PEGSCO, a working group of Member State representatives.
- EIF tackles interoperability head-on and takes a clear stance: "Recommendation 22. When establishing European public services, public administrations should prefer open specifications, taking due account of the coverage of functional needs, maturity and market support."
- The Commission will continue to support the National Interoperability Framework Observatory (NIFO), reconfirming the importance of coordinating such approaches across borders.
- The Commission will align its internal interoperability strategy with the EIS through the eCommission initiative.
- One cannot stress the importance of using open standards enough, whether in the context of open source or non-open source software. The EIF seems to have picked up on this fact:

What does the EIF says about the relation between open specifications and open source software? The EIF introduces, as one of the characteristics of an open specification, the requirement that IPRs related to the specification have to be licensed on FRAND terms or on a royalty-free basis in a way that allows implementation in both proprietary and open source software. In this way, companies working under various business models can compete on an equal footing when providing solutions to public administrations while administrations that implement the standard in their own software (software that they own) can share such software with others under an open source licence if they so decide.

- EIF is now among the center pieces of the Digital Agenda (even though this demands extensive inter-agency coordination in the Commission):

"The EIS and the EIF will be maintained under the ISA Programme and kept in line with the results of other relevant Digital Agenda actions on interoperability and standards such as the ones on the reform of rules on implementation of ICT standards in Europe to allow use of certain ICT fora and consortia standards, on issuing guidelines on essential intellectual property rights and licensing conditions in standard-setting, including for ex-ante disclosure, and on providing guidance on the link between ICT standardisation and public procurement to help public authorities to use standards to promote efficiency and reduce lock-in.(Communication, p.7)"

All in all, quite a few good things have happened to the document in the two years it has been on the shelf or was being re-written, depending on your perspective, in any case, awaiting the storms to calm.

The Bad

- While a certain pragmatism is required, and governments cannot migrate to full openness overnight, EIF gives a bit too much room for governments not to apply the openness principle in full. Plenty of reasons are given, which should maybe have been put as challenges to be overcome:

"However, public administrations may decide to use less open specifications, if open specifications do not exist or do not meet functional interoperability needs. In all cases, specifications should be mature and sufficiently supported by the market, except if used in the context of creating innovative solutions".

- EIF does not use the internationally established terminology: open standards. Rather, the EIF introduces the notion of "formalised specification". How do "formalised specifications" relate to "standards"? According to the FAQ provided:

The word "standard" has a specific meaning in Europe as defined by Directive 98/34/EC. Only technical specifications approved by a recognised standardisation body can be called a standard. Many ICT systems rely on the use of specifications developed by other organisations such as a forum or consortium. The EIF introduces the notion of "formalised specification", which is either a standard pursuant to Directive 98/34/EC or a specification established by ICT fora and consortia. The term "open specification" used in the EIF, on the one hand, avoids terminological confusion with the Directive and, on the other, states the main features that comply with the basic principle of openness laid down in the EIF for European Public Services.

Well, this may be somewhat true, but in reality, Europe is 30 year behind in terminology. Unless the European Standardization Reform gets completed in the next few months, most Member States will likely conclude that they will go on referencing and using standards beyond those created by the three European endorsed monopolists of standardization, CEN, CENELEC and ETSI. Who can afford to begin following the strict Brussels rules for what they can call open standards when, in reality, standards stemming from global standardization organizations, so-called fora/consortia, dominate in the IT industry. What exactly is EIF saying? Does it encourage Member States to go on using non-ESO standards as long as they call it something else? I guess I am all for it, although it is a bit cumbersome, no?

Why was there so much interest around the EIF? The FAQ attempts to explain:

Some Member States have begun to adopt policies to achieve interoperability for their public services. These actions have had a significant impact on the ecosystem built around the provision of such services, e.g. providers of ICT goods and services, standardisation bodies, industry fora and consortia, etc... The Commission identified a clear need for action at European level to ensure that actions by individual Member States would not create new electronic barriers that would hinder the development of interoperable European public services. As a result, all stakeholders involved in the delivery of electronic public services in Europe have expressed their opinions on how to increase interoperability for public services provided by the different public administrations in Europe.

Well, it does not take two years to read 50 consultation documents, and the EU Standardization Reform is not yet completed, so, more pragmatically, you finally had to release the document. Ok, let's leave some of that aside because the document is out and some people are happy (and others definitely not).

The Verdict

Considering the controversy, the delays, the lobbying, and the interests at stake both in the EU, in Member States and among vendors large and small, this document is pretty impressive. As with a good wine that has not yet come to full maturity, let's say that it seems to be coming in in the 85-88/100 range, but only a more fine-grained analysis, enjoyment in good company, and ultimately, implementation, will tell.

The European Commission has today adopted a significant interoperability initiative to encourage public administrations across the EU to maximise the social and economic potential of information and communication technologies. Today, we should rally around this achievement. Tomorrow, let's sit down and figure out what it means for the future.

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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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