On Wednesday this week the European Commission adopted the legal package on standardisation. It consists of a Communication outlining the strategic thinking and directions for European standardisation and of a Regulation that will lay down the legal principles and constitute the future European standardisation framework. Both texts plus some accompanying material like the Impact Assessment are available from the DG Enterprise website.
To begin with, the legal package is excellent – highest congratulations to the Commission. It addresses the urgent needs for European standardisation that had been identified in the studies and reports over the last years. Above all, it addresses the needs of the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) sector which has developed different structures globally with well-established fora and consortia being in the lead of ICT standards development. The legal package, following the Digital Agenda, takes this up and provides well-thought-out and sophisticated solutions. They build on the current European standardisation system which proved to be effective and efficient, but complement it with important means taking into account the global realities in ICT.
The major points that are new are:
Advisory Platform for ICT standardisation policy: In 2011, the Commission will establish “a dedicated multi-stakeholder platform to advise the Commission on matters relating to the implementation of standardisation policy in the ICT field” (Communication, Action 21). This ICT platform will help to provide expert advice on ICT standardisation fast and and from all stakeholders, which will help to increase efficiency in a highly dynamic and global domain.
Process for direct referencing of ICT standards from fora/consortia: A process will be implemented to “recognise technical specifications which are not national, European or international standards” provided that they meet a set of openness criteria (Regulation, Articles 9 and 10; see also my next point). The Commission makes very clear that this is about “selected ICT standards that are widely accepted by the market” and “in areas where the ESOs are not active, where ESO standards have not gained market uptake” (Communication, Action 19) – so this is not about recognising more organisations, it is about complementing the current system on a by-need basis and where it makes sense.
And the Commission stresses that
- direct referencing of these fora/consortia standards will be allowed for public procurement (Communication, Action 19);
- fora/consortia standards will increasingly be used in EU policies, especially to foster interoperability (Communication, Action 20);
- the Member States are encouraged to increase the use of fora/consortia standards in public procurement (Communication, Action 22).
Introduction of a set of “quality criteria”: Annex II of the Regulation lays down “Requirements for the recognition of technical specifications in the field of ICT” including a set of criteria that need to be met if fora/consortia standards are to be used in the public sector. These criteria basically follow the WTO Principles thus ensuring that a certain level of
openness, transparency etc. are given.
These new elements for ICT standardisation in Europe do not revolutionise the system. But they provide a necessary extension for Europe to be able to operate effectively in the ICT domain. The Commission rightly addresses
(a) public procurement where public administrations need to be able to reference the relevant global standards in their tenders in order to purchase and build modern ICT infrastructures and to achieve genuine interoperability; and
(b) policy making where fora/consortia standards are essential for a full, end-to-end solution given, for instance, that ICT becomes more and more ubiquitous so that ICT standards are an important element in the integration of technologies in innovative areas. You could name a number of examples here, including smart grid, intelligent transportation, eGovernment, eHealth, e-mobility, etc. In other words: ICT standards have high relevance for an effective industrial and innovation policy. With the new Regulation policy makers have the instrument ready to pursue their objectives in a more conclusive and comprehensive way with up-to-date global technologies being available for use.
There is a large potential where Europe will benefit from these changes. Think about the boost of innovation and growth that the internet and the world wide web have triggered. Think about all the SMEs in Europe that took benefit alongside the big global technology providers from the internet technologies and the open standards available for used and implementation. This decade will see more such innovation and technology integration in many areas building on top of the internet and its technologies. ICT will provide intelligent layers on top of the current infrastructures and on top of physical layers in order to optimise processes and supply chains. This is where ICT standards play a major role and where they are needed in Europe for innovation and growth.
In this context I also welcome the high focus the Commission puts on interoperability: “ICT standards developed by leading Global ICT for a and Consortia can be used in public procurement to help avoid lock-in and encourage competition in the supply of interoperable ICT services, applications and products“ (Communication, chapter 6, p.16). And in the same way in the context of policy making the Commission points out the importance of fora/consortia standards “in particular when the interoperability between devices, applications, data repositories, services and networks must be further enhanced” (Communication, chapter 6, p.16).
All this shows the high level of sophistication underpinning the legal package. I have been following the topic and have been involved in expert group discussions about it for about 5 years. Sometimes I had the feeling that there were too many discussions and iterations. But I must say now that the Commission really made the best of all the investigations that were undertaken. This legal package shows a level of balance and deep understanding of the problems that is remarkable. And it is an excellent piece of input into the legislative process which will start soon now with the Parliament and the Council discussing the topic towards reaching the final agreement on the Regulation.
There are for sure some groups who don't like the proposed changes. Some may be afraid of losing influence and power. Others may be concerned that not every detail of the new processes is laid down and addressed already in this legal package. Well, this is the same as with any changes that are introduced. Fact is, the legal package provides complementary processes, nothing is being taken away from anybody, but the work that is going on elsewhere is recognised. And the more detailed processes quite naturally will be worked out when the new instruments come into place. The platform will work out its procedures, processes for making sure that the fora/consortia specifications meet the requirements and criteria need to be set up, etc. But all of this is business as usual. And nothing that should be part of a legal document.
No doubt, the Commission's legal package marks a milestone after the long and in depths discussions on the future of European standardisation. An excellent basis to build on.