Urgent Request: European Standardization Reform for ICT

The European Parliament's Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO)' s new draft report on on the future of European standardisation (2010/2051(INI)) makes a few good points and a few bad ones. Now, this is as seen from the software and hardware systems vendor perspective. However, frankly, this is the only view that counts right now. The ICT sector (and its dependents in this case, governments and enterprises across the EU) is the reason that reform is on the table. ICT is at the heart of the reform.

Standardization in any other domain is important, too, and may well need other rules to play by, or the same rules as before, or whatever, at this point. We simply do not have the time to ponder the issues any more. Nobody in the ICT sector pretends to be an expert on other standardization domains. However, it would naturally follow from the way standardization is most efficient that they become gradually globalized so there wider implementation and use). But, doubts about any of that is no reason to stop the most important reform the EU should undertake this year; recognizing fora and consortia standards (that satisfy the openness criteria and are truly open standards) so they can be used in EU policy, procurement, and ideally in its legislation.

Recognizing fora and consortia would drastically improve the fairness of procurement, the efficiency of public sector, and the credibility of the EU as an international actor.

The major problem most critics of standardization reform have at this moment is the confusion between the needs of the overall standardization system and the needs of the most important sector for European growth and innovation, the IT sector. Without properly handling these matters separately, no successful reform can happen. As I will explain, the draft report is naïve in this regard. The ICT sector has by most experts been identified as the sector with the most urgent need of reform. With the current delays, having discussed reform for almost 5 years now, time is running out. The European standardization system as it stands is largely irrelevant to the ICT sector. That situation damages European innovation and hurts the credibility of the European standardization system. The reason the IT vendors care is that it actually leads to unfair, unproductive procurement decisions, and a lot of inefficiency.

The Good
Finally the Parliament starts to care about standardization, 30 years after the framework first was developed.
- The draft report recognizes the key role standardization can play in realizing the single market
- The draft report states that "Europe should also play a more active role in the promotion of EU-wide interoperable standards for innovative products and technologies, such as in the area of low carbon and ICT services and technologies."
- The draft report recognises that fora and consortia contribute considerably to the standardisation system
- The draft report notes that The European Standardisation System recognises the primacy of international standards.

The Bad
- The draft report recognises the principle of national delegation as a cornerstone of the European Standardisation System. Why is this bad? Because national delegation is only one among many valid ways of nominating stakeholders. If countries did develop ICT standards, then, by all means, they would be a valid way of organizing votes. But this is not usually the case. To speak for ICT, who would in all seriousness claim that a national delegation from a tiny country with absolutely no ICT industry should have one vote whereas a large country with a huge ICT industry also should have one vote?

Clearly, ICT standards are mostly developed by the ICT sector itself, and they drive the process. Well, this is almost too obvious to write about and the end result of the current situation is that very few ICT standards are currently developed in European national bodies (but this may, of course, change).

National delegation, as it applies to ICT standardization only, means that significant ICT players are either going to ignore national standardization efforts or are forced to spend time in their national committees. In some cases, when such players do invest large resources, they do end up with some influence. However, that influence is often at the detriment of a fair process, since only a few players can afford (or indeed have the inclination) to stack up dozens and hundreds of national delegations. Most companies, particularly SMEs, regardless of nationality, end up hoping to take part as non-voting member of a team that may or may not influence the decision of that country's vote. Is that in any way democratic, useful, or "a cornerstone"?

Consequently, the national delegation principle should be toned down as regards ICT standardization and should be complemented with other ways of directly representing the ICT sector as such.

- The draft report calls on the ESOs to develop and implement an improved mechanism for the adoption of fora/consortia specifications as European standards instead of directly referencing those standards without the need for European intervention.

How did we get there?
Figuring out how the report got so skewed towards status quo is easy. Just look at how the powerful German standardization body, DIN, positions the reform. In a surprisingly sharp press release for a conservative public actor, DIN over the summer issued a statement saying the "European standardization system threatened":

It is evident that the European Commission is considering changing the "ownership" of standardization by taking standardization out of the hands of its stakeholders. How else can one explain the fact that the current financing of standards work is being called into question, or that the elimination of the national mirror committees and the founding of a central agency is under consideration?

Hurrah for the European Commission. They are actually proposing or at least exploring change. But what happened to the follow-up?

What is evident is that DIN and other hugely important and vested interests are on the counter offensive against any type of reform that would damage their "unquestionable" institutional monopoly on standardization on German soil. However, while their position is fully understandable from an institutional survival standpoint, it is not very forward looking. What DIN, and the European Parliament should consider is to de-couple ICT from the rest of the reform. Handle the ICT issues now, spend another six months discussing the overall reform package. Rest assured, DIN will and should survive.

Therefore, here are some proposed amendments to the draft IMCO report:
- Consider mentioning that The European Digital Agenda is a key document for the ICT sector with a large paragraph on ICT standards and standardisation. In IMCO language:

having regard of the Commission's Communication on the Digital Agenda issued by the Directorate-General on Information Society, COM(2010)245

- Consider the most important background document for the ICT standardisation policy reform, in IMCO language:

having regard to the Study on the specific Policy Need for ICT Standardisation carried out for the Commission Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry (May 2007)

- The importance of openness for European standardization should be stressed. In IMCO language:

whereas - in order to meet the requirements of the public and societal implications of standards and standardisation - openness must be a key priority of European standardisation and must be considered and reflected in all processes and policies around standardisation;

The implementation of the White Paper on Modernising ICT Standardization should now happen. In IMCO language:

Espouses the Commission White Paper on "Modernising ICT Standardisation in the EU - The Way Forward" (COM(2009)324) and calls on the Member States and the Commission to implement the recommendations of the White Paper to ensure the availability of relevant global ICT standards for implementation and use in EU policies and public procurement;

- Strengthen the support for direct referencing of standards from global standards development organizations (so-called fora/consortia). In IMCO language, to add onto opinion 28:

acknowledges for the ICT domain the need for implementing processes to make well-established and widely-used global specifications from fora and consortia directly available for implementation and use in Europe in order to promote interoperability and allow for such global ICT specifications to be directly referenced in EU policies and in public procurement;

European Standardization Reform for ICT is now urgent. Parliament, and IMCO in particular, could shift the debate. Take a more powerful stand or stand down. Why issue a report without checking the latest facts, the most prominent of which is the following: it was thirty years ago that the EU introduced the current framework for ICT standardization. The world has moved on, so should the EU.

Recognizing fora and consortia standards so they can be used in EU policy, procurement, and ideally in its legislation would be the most important reform the EU undertakes this year.


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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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