Wednesday, 20 October 2010

EU Parliament to adopt report from the IMCO Committee on the Future of European Standardisation

Tomorrow, October 21, the European Parliament will discuss the report produced by the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) on the Future of European Standardisation. The document is was recently adopted by the IMCO Committee and is available both on the IMCO website and on the agenda for the Parliament for tomorrow. Both listings also contain the Opinion of the ITRE Committee (Committee on Industry, Technology and Research) which is very worth reading and in several instances more straight and forward looking than the full IMCO report.

A couple of weeks ago I commented on the draft version that had been published by IMCO in mid August listing some issues that I still saw missing from the report – most notably around the specifics of the ICT sector.

Now the final report has much improved in this respect and takes full account of the specifics and the needs of the ICT sector in addition to the broad and impressively concise perspective taken on European standardisation at large. In general the report is overly balanced. It addresses all stakeholder interests as well as the different sectors and the processes that have developed within the sectors for developing standards and specifications. Perhaps with one exception: I find that ETSI comes a bit short in the report. But clause G clearly mentions the different processes that are part of the European Standardisation System in its totality including direct membership in ETSI.

Out of my perspective I see a number of items in the report that are particularly worth noting:

1. The different structures in ICT standardisation require action:
The Committee clearly identifies the different structures and processes in the ICT sector where a large amount of standards is developed in global open fora and consortia. And IMCO stresses the relevance of these fora/consortia standards for innovation as well as for interoperability which, in turn, again is a trigger for innovation. (clauses 64-67). In its recommendations the Committee puts a clear emphasis on improving the cooperation between fora/consortia and the formal standards organisations. Yet, the Committee also clearly “welcomes the Commission white paper on ‘Modernising ICT Standardisation in the EU – The Way Forward’; calls on the Member States and the Commission to implement the key recommendations outlined in the white paper” (clause 6). It supports the set of attributes that is proposed in the ICT White Paper (clause 8). And it “Stresses the imperative need to adapt ICT standardisation policy to market and policy developments, which will lead to achieving important European policy goals requiring interoperability” (clause 67).

It is interesting to compare the sometimes a bit obscure and circuitous wording of the IMCO report with the Opinion of the ITRE Committee which is much clearer and more to the point. The ITRE Committee gives two clear directions on how to proceed:

“27. Calls on the Commission to introduce into the legal framework the possibility of referring, solely in the field of ICT and solely on the condition of compliance with certain basic standardisation principles, to deliverables of fora and consortia;
36. Calls on the Commission to put in place a mechanism for recognising specific standards developed by industry fora and consortia which could have a significant impact on filling standardisation gaps and on international cooperation in ICT standardisation matters;”

Taking both the IMCO report and the ITRE opinion together rounds up the picture and gives the right direction where to go.

2. Correlation between standards, interoperability, innovation and competitiveness:
The report leaves no doubt that standards are essential for interoperability and both are an important trigger for innovation and competitiveness. Thus, the Committee “recognises that interoperability is key to innovation and competitiveness, especially in the ICT sector” (clause 66).

3. Short but clear statement regarding IPRs:
Clause 63 touches on IPRs in relation to standardisation as well as innovation. What I like is that the Committee keeps this short. IPR is a complex topic and can easily overshadow any discussion on standardisation. The Committee concentrates on the right issues: First, there are different aspects that need to be considered in the debate, namely whether the focus is on the transfer of basic research into standardisation for technology exploitation and market access or whether it is on the availability of standards for use, implementation and innovation on top of the standards. And secondly the Committee clearly states that care needs to be taken when using proprietary technologies to make sure that they are available later on to all users. What is perhaps missing in this respect is a consideration of Open Source and its needs. After all, Open Source technologies are of high relevance to the public sector.

4. Modernisation of processes is needed:
The Committee is very clear on the need for the National Standards Bodies and the ESOs to review their processes and drastically increase the use of modern ICT technologies for a modernisation of the way they work and operate. They see the opportunities this will bring for more openness and transparency, for better stakeholder involvement – including above all SMEs and societal stakeholders. And I would like to add to this: standards bodies should use standards based solutions when moving into this direction.

5. The power of public procurement:
It is only a short mention in clause 58 but it is of utmost importance: public procurement needs to use standards “in order to improve the quality of public services and foster innovative technologies”. I ignore the fact that there is a bit patriotism included in the clause as it only talks about “European standards”. This raises the questions of what is a European standard, what about international standards, what about fora/consortia standards etc. Nonetheless, public procurement is a powerful element of governments to drive the implementation and use of standards and thus to ensure interoperability and drive innovation and competitiveness.

So far the points I would like to highlight in the report out of my very personal perspective. Now there are also some aspects where I think the report could be improved.

First, I already indicated above that I think the report is in general a bit too conservative – meaning protectionist of the current system. If I may say so, some passages read as if nightmares of a complete overhaul of the European standardisation system had haunted the respective authors. While I fully share the basic position that the European standardisation system works well and has entirely fulfilled its purpose and function over the last two decades, above all in supporting the internal market, I also see that modern times require some adaptions and changes. Only at one point, for instance, does the report mention globalisation (clause I), which, however, is a major challenge for Europe and for European standardisation as well as a major driver for change.
The report overemphasises the preservation of the current structures. What I am missing is some forward-looking on flexibility and changes that might be needed for the future system in Europe. Not that I would expect the Parliament to come up with the exact proposals for such changes. But the report should have identified the need and given directions to the Commission and the Member States to consider such aspects.

Secondly, there seems to be a general assumption in the report as if standardisation and standards bodies were a governmental institution. Standardisation is above all for the market, and standards bodies are tools for market players to develop the standards the market needs. The element of developing and using standards in support of regulation is, compared to that, fairly small. On the other hand, this is the part of standardisation where public authorities are concerned. But it could have been made clearer in the report that there is a broader aspect of standardisation and this is the market.

And thirdly a final point where I believe some improvement could be made: the report entirely avoids the term “Open Standard”. Yet, “Open Standard” is such a powerful and widely used concept in the global market as well as widely used term adopted in various policies throughout Europe and beyond that it should at least be mentioned at some point to show that the Committee has taken notice of its existence and has given it some reflection.

For tomorrow, I expect that the Parliament will not hold any debate on this report but in a straight forward voting adopt it. That's also what the agenda indicates. And after all, the report is good. It was accepted by a broad majority as was the ITRE opinion in the ITRE Committee. And it provides a very comprehensive basis for the further processes around the reform of the European Standardisation System.

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