Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The debate about the UK open standards policy – is it a story like the one of the spider and the bee?

A fierce debate is going on about the UK open procurement policy and the open standards consultation that was issued by the UK government and where final submission is due by end of this month. It is the same (old) debate about open versus closed that we have seen so often before. It is discussed in almost every organisation around the globe, it seems, and culminates in a series of workshops around the topic to which the UK cabinet office has invited.

And as we have seen before, there is a good deal of confusion around and a good deal of FUD is created. There are some articles and blog posts from the workshops that give a bit of an idea of the debate. On ComputerWeekly Mark Ballard published an article where he did some research on how the first workshop went: “Open standards supporters who attended complained it was stacked with opponents who easily dominated a meeting motion against the government's open standards policy.” This was, in a way, countered or put into more balance by a statement from Andrew Hopkirk, moderator and facilitator of the round table – also published in ComputerWeekly.

In a blog post Linda Humphries, member of the UK cabinet office, asks “Are open standards a closed barrier?” And she outlines in some detail what the actual objective of the UK policy makers is:
“We think that by improving connectivity across government systems we’ll be able to share more solutions. That should help us to reduce how much we need to buy. We also want to make sure that we have flexibility and choice when we buy IT, so that we don’t get locked in with one supplier or one product. Lots of competition and diversity should give us the opportunity to swap between suppliers and to get better services at a lower cost. Additionally, let’s not forget the Government’s key commitment to levelling the playing field for open source software, making sure that there is fair access to opportunities for both proprietary and open source software providers in government IT procurement.”
So this brings us back to real facts: like a number of other governments the UK intend to mandate open standards for software interoperability standards to be used and referenced by UK public authorities. And, to avoid misunderstandings, open standard means: (i) developed in an open, transparent process; (ii) available for implementation without IPR encumbrances.

For sure such a clear open standards policy makes sense. The arguments have long been on the table – so I just repeat the most important ones:
  1. Open standards for software interoperability promote innovation: Looking at software interoperability, innovation takes place on the level of the implementation of standards rather than within the standard itself. Having the standards available for everybody – including the open source communities – can promote innovation. The prime example is the internet and the world wide web. New areas for innovation are just starting, e.g. around technology integration and process automation or around open government data. Open standards can be of key importance here to drive innovation. Therefore, it makes sense for governments to require open standards for software interoperability.

  2. Open standards provide a level playing field: Since they are available for implementation for everyone without encumbrances open standards ensure and promote fair competition. This includes both proprietary technology vendors and open source technology providers.

  3. Open standards prevent vendor lock-in: Open standards allow for smooth exchange of technologies with new, more innovative ones. They significantly reduce exit cost. In this way they also provide an incentive for innovation and competition since there is a fair chance for everybody to compete with their implementations of open standards. Dependency and lock-in on a single vendor are prevented.

As I had written a while ago, generally much of the way public discourse is held today shows similarities to the early 18th century with the rise of the public sphere and of (fierce) democratic debate. And I am sure the protagonists of those days, e.g. in the literary scene people – great satirists – like Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, John Arbuthnot and John Gay, would have great pleasure of how the debate on open standards and on the UK open standards policy is going.

And perhaps we can even find parallels between the current discourse and the debates of the early 18th century. Now, to enjoy this and not take it wrong you really need to understand and appreciate satire. Otherwise you will find it rogue and unpleasant. So please take this warning statement: Suitable only for people with a good sense of humour and pleasure in satire!

Now I am sure you all continue reading ;-) …. So is there a parallel between the story, the allegory of the spider and the bee and the debate about open standards? Jonathan Swift wrote this allegory which is part of his narrative The Battle of the Books in the early 18th century. The spider gets upset by a bee flying around his cobweb. But read yourselves:
[The spider said to the bee], “what art thou but a vagabond without house or home, without stock or inheritance? born to no possession of your own, but a pair of wings and a drone-pipe. Your livelihood is a universal plunder upon nature; a freebooter over fields and gardens; and, for the sake of stealing, will rob a nettle as easily as a violet. Whereas I am a domestic animal, furnished with a native stock within myself. This large castle (to show my improvements in the mathematics) is all built with my own hands, and the materials extracted altogether out of my own person.”
“I am glad,” answered the bee, “to hear you grant at least that I am come honestly by my wings and my voice; for then, it seems, I am obliged to Heaven alone for my flights and my music; and Providence would never have bestowed on me two such gifts without designing them for the noblest ends. I visit, indeed, all the flowers and blossoms of the field and garden, but whatever I collect thence enriches myself without the least injury to their beauty, their smell, or their taste. Now, for you and your skill in architecture and other mathematics, I have little to say: in that building of yours there might, for aught I know, have been labour and method enough; but, by woeful experience for us both, it is too plain the materials are naught; and I hope you will henceforth take warning, and consider duration and matter, as well as method and art. You boast, indeed, of being obliged to no other creature, but of drawing and spinning out all from yourself; that is to say, if we may judge of the liquor in the vessel by what issues out, you possess a good plentiful store of dirt and poison in your breast; and, though I would by no means lesson or disparage your genuine stock of either, yet I doubt you are somewhat obliged, for an increase of both, to a little foreign assistance. Your inherent portion of dirt does not fall of acquisitions, by sweepings exhaled from below; and one insect furnishes you with a share of poison to destroy another. So that, in short, the question comes all to this: whether is the nobler being of the two, that which, by a lazy contemplation of four inches round, by an overweening pride, feeding, and engendering on itself, turns all into excrement and venom, producing nothing at all but flybane and a cobweb; or that which, by a universal range, with long search, much study, true judgment, and distinction of things, brings home honey and wax.” [From: Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books, first published in 1704.]

I leave all conclusions up to your distinct judgement, gentle reader. After all, as Swift put it in the introduction to this book, “Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world”. But I hope you agree with me that we need to bring in a bit more fun into the debate. Humour often helps to create a bit of distance to the topics under discussion and to separate the real issues from those that have been made up.

Personally, I believe in collaboration rather than in battles. Open standards are a wonderful facilitator of collaboration. So here we are again, in the heart of the debate. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Relevant link of today: "The emerging global market for intellectual property"

Manny Schecter, chief patent counsel at IBM, has written a guest article in Forbes on "The emerging global market for intellectual property". The article looks at how patents and IP are becoming part of trade and the global market:
"Intellectual property has become one of the most important resources in the 21st century. It’s now an accepted fact that, just like financial capital or commodities or labor, IP is more than an economic asset – it also forms the basis of a global market."
The full article is available on the Forbes website - it is definitely worth reading. Inspiring food for thought.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

EU Legal Package on Standardisation: legal process taking up speed - some key issues for the ICT part

Since the European Commission presented the EU legal package on standardisation in June last year (see my blog post from then) the legal process has taken place in the European Parliament, where the IMCO committee has the lead, and in the Council, where a working group of the competitiveness council deals with the topic. .

Both institutions recently finalised their positions. Once both institutions have given their chair or rapporteur, respectively, a mandate to negotiate the formal trialogue discussions between the Parliament, the Council and the Commission will take place. For the time being informal probing talks are held.

Regarding the ICT part, i.e. essentially Articles 9 and 10 and Annex II of the draft Regulation, there are still some critical elements that need to be sorted out in these trialogue negotiations. Below I'd like to share my key observations and concerns:

Applying Comitology procedure for recognising ICT specifications from fora/consortia: 
The Member States propose to apply the examination procedure of the Comitology rules for approving an ICT specification from a forum/consortium so that it is recognised and can be used in Europe. This means that a formal vote according to the Treaty on European Union would be carried out each and every time when an ICT specification is to be recognised. 

What I can understand The Member States want to have a role in the decision making process. They are member of the ICT Multi-Stakeholder Platform (MSP), but in exceptional cases they may wish to have a distinct Member States position differentiating their position clearly from the overall MSP statement of advice. But after all, recognising ICT specifications that may be used but are not compulsory is not an implementing act.
What puzzles me Do the Member States really want to take the task to vote formally on each and every ICT specification under assessment? If the examination procedure is applied the ICT specifications would get a very formal status – even higher than European Norms developed and approved in the ESOs. What is the purpose? Which problems do the Member States intend to address with the examination procedure. After all, the use of recognised ICT specifications will be totally optional, not mandated, not compulsory. So the examination procedure seems to go far to far.
What could be a good solution If everybody would agree to use the advisory procedure of Comitoloy (i.e. apply Article 18.2 of the draft Regulation) this would allow them – if needed – to voice a distinct piece of Advice which would clearly have more weight than the overall statement of the MSP. And if not needed the Member States could simply – as a member of the MSP – participate in the process. With this they could interfere in exceptional cases and in an appropriate way regarding the totally optional character of recognised ICT specifications. And all this even though the recognition of ICT specifications is NOT a delegated act and comitology should not have to be applied at all.

No mentioning about policies

An important element of the recognition of ICT fora/consortia specifications is to have a common and solid base of specifications that may be used either in public procurement or in policies. This is of high relevance since policy often precedes procurement. And while in theory the Commission – independent of what the outcome of the Regulation will be – is free to reference in policies whatever they deem appropriate, a common list of recognised ICT specifications would create some driving force to the Commission to consider this list of recognised ICT specifications and give priority to them. So there would be some factor of harmonisation. Now, therefore, I am astonished and disappointed that policies are not mentioned at all, neither in the position from IMCO, nor, as far as I know, in the one from the Council.  

What I can understand The term policy is confusing – e.g. because there is no real equivalent in a number of other European languages than English. Some Member States seem to have thought that policies means heavy regulation. In fact, it is more about innovation policy or industrial policy in the broader sense.
What puzzles me Again, the Commission is free to reference any specification in policies where the Commission has the prerogative. Therefore, explicitly including policies in Article 9 would put limitations to the Commission. I can't understand why the Member States are so resistant against including the topic of policies in Article 9.
What could be a good solution In the context of the trialogue negotiations everybody involved should reconsider the issue and agree to add policies to Article 9. A common base for selecting ICT specifications that are referenced in either public procurement or in policies is of major benefit – and again, there is no risk because otherwise the Commission may do whatever they want anyway.

Adding Coherence to Annex II

Some Member States insist on adding “coherence” to the requirements that are to be considered in the assessment of ICT specifications from fora/consortia. While they originally proposed that coherence should be a further criterion the latest proposal is to add coherence at the beginning of Annex II as a generic policy requirement. And nota bene this is coherence with the catalogue of European Norms. 

What I can understand Coherence with European Norms is important to avoid conflicts and support a coherent catalogue of standards. At first I did not see the purpose since the intention of making use of ICT specifications from fora/consortia is not for the regulated domain, not for New Approach Directives. However, I was convinced that in some cases like eHealth (with a European patient card etc.) it will be important to ensure interoperability and therefore coherence is of some relevance.
What puzzles me
First of call, I am happy that the idea to add coherence as a criterion is no longer under discussion because it is more a policy objective than an attribute of a specific specification.
Secondly, I am concerned that the wording does not discriminate against fora/consortia and, in case of conflict, give automatic predominance to ESO specifications. WLAN vs. HiperLan is a prominent example here. So in case of conflict a very thorough look needs to be taken and any automatism needs to avoided.
What could be a good solution The latest proposal which I had the opportunity to be told about seems to be fine. It is about adding an introductory paragraph to Annex II requiring that ICT specifications are coherent with European standards (i.e. ENs). This means they cover domains where the European Standardisation bodies are not active; or where the ESO standards have not gained market uptake. But is should be made explicit that there is no automatism to give predominance to ESO specifications.