2009. november 4., szerda

EU Wants to Re-define “Closed” as “Nearly Open”

The European Interoperability Framework (EIF) is an important document produced by the “Interoperable delivery of pan-European eGovernment services to public administrations, businesses and citizens” (IDABC) for the European Union.


Version 1 came out in 2004, and since then battles have raged over how Version 2 would address the issue of “openness”. Judging by a leaked version of the near-final result, it looks like the lobbyists acting on the behalf of closed-source software houses have won.

This is what Version 1 had to say on the subject of open standards:
 
To attain interoperability in the context of pan-European eGovernment services, guidance needs to focus on open standards. The following are the minimal characteristics that a specification and its attendant documents must have in order to be considered an open standard:
 
The standard is adopted and will be maintained by a not-for-profit organisation, and its ongoing development occurs on the basis of an open decision-making procedure available to all interested parties (consensus or majority decision etc.).
 
The standard has been published and the standard specification document is available either freely or at a nominal charge. It must be permissible to all to copy, distribute and use it for no fee or at a nominal fee.
 
The intellectual property - i.e. patents possibly present - of (parts of) the standard is made irrevocably available on a royalty-free basis.
 
There are no constraints on the re-use of the standard.

And here is what it said on open source:
 
Open Source Software (OSS) tends to use and help define open standards and publicly available specifications. OSS products are, by their nature, publicly available specifications, and the availability of their source code promotes open, democratic debate around the specifications, making them both more robust and interoperable. As such, OSS corresponds to the objectives of this Framework and should be assessed and considered favourably alongside proprietary alternatives.

Here is what the leaked Version 2 has to say on open standards and open source: nothing.

Instead, it has this incredible section on “Openness”:
 
Within the context of the EIF, openness is the willingness of persons, organisations or other members of a community of interest to share knowledge and to stimulate debate within that community of interest, having as ultimate goal the advancement of knowledge and the use thereof to solve relevant problems. In that sense, openness leads to considerable gains in efficiency.

Notice how the throwaway phrase “the availability of their source code promotes open, democratic debate around the specifications, making them both more robust and interoperable” in the first version has been expanded to become the *main* “idea” in the second version – although something so vague, woolly and content-free doesn't really deserve to be called anything quite so grand as “idea”.

But it gets worse: not content with totally eliminating the concrete definitions of open standards in Version 1, Version 2 then goes on to re-define “closed” as just another shade of openness, but without any of the openness:

There are varying degrees of openness.
 
Specifications, software and software development methods that promote collaboration and the results of which can freely be accessed, reused and shared are considered open and lie at one end of the spectrum while non-documented, proprietary specifications, proprietary software and the reluctance or resistance to reuse solutions, i.e. the "not invented here" syndrome, lie at the other end. The spectrum of approaches that lies between these two extremes can be called the openness continuum.

Got that? “Closed” lies at one end of the *open* spectrum, which conveniently means we can *include* closed solutions in the interoperability framework because they are part of that continuum. Indeed, Version 2 goes on to say:

While there is a correlation between openness and interoperability, it is also true that interoperability can be obtained without openness, for example via homogeneity of the ICT systems, which implies that all partners use, or agree to use, the same solution to implement a European Public Service.

According to this line of thinking, if everyone were forced to use Microsoft Word for document interchange, then that would provide interoperability. Except that it wouldn't, because interoperability implies at least two *different* things are are operating together: self-interoperability is trivial. Version 2's “homogeneity” is better described as a monopoly and a monoculture – and the last two decades have taught just how dangerous those are.

It's not hard to see why some companies might prefer the wording of Version 2. Version 1 specifically says: “The intellectual property - i.e. patents possibly present - of (parts of) the standard is made irrevocably available on a royalty-free basis.” This would allow alternative implementations from the free software community, which is unable to pay royalties. The current wording, which allows patented, proprietary solutions as part of the “open continuum” would mean that free software could not compete. How convenient.
It's hard to tell how far the process of drawing up Version 2 of the EIF has gone, and whether the leaked copy reflects the latest thinking. But the comment at the front:
 
The EIF that is finally published will be formatted prior to publication, at which time extensive consistency checks, as well as other checks on abbreviations, references in footnotes, grammar, etc. will be performed.

certainly suggests that there only remains a little tidying up before final publication.

But make no mistake, if the real version 2 of the European Interoperability Framework is anything like the one discussed above, with its pathetically devalued definition of openness, and its espousal of the risible “openness continuum”, it will represent a huge setback for the use of free software in Europe, and a major boost for closed-source software producers and the patents they all-too often claim there - even though software cannot be patented “as such” in Europe.

So now might be a good time to start making a noise about this and spreading the word just in case the EU *is* on the brink of making such an ill-advised move....

Source: Computerworld UK
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