The European Commission can read “documents sent to its services in a wide range of formats including international standards such as PDF, ODF…” replies Mr Morán García, Director General of the Informatics Directorate General of the Commission, DIGIT. Mr. Morán’s answers the request for adherence to Open Standards in EU bodies and EC programmes that a group of people have sent under the initiative of the Free Knowledge Institute.

Open Standards are essential for interoperability and freedom of choice based on the merits of different software applications. They provide freedom from data lock-in and the subsequent vendor lock-in. As the EC’s agency on interoperability, IDABC, recommends European member states to:

1) make maximal use of internationally standardized open document exchange and storage formats for internal and external communication;
2) use only formats that can be handled by a variety of products, avoiding in this way to force the use of specific products on their correspondents. When the usage of proprietary formats is unavoidable, alternative, internationally standardized open formats shall be provided in addition to proprietary formats;

Unfortunately the EC’s reply only comes half-way, in the sense that it enables citizens and organisations to send documents in the open formats that are internationally endorsed. But it misses an important element in that the Commission services can still force their citizens to use the proprietary file formats that are currently in use and responsible for the vendor dependence.

Mr. Morán put it like this: “Although there is a strong trend also to use Web technologies when interaction with citizens or business is required, revisable document formats are still used ocassionally. In such cases, a format will be chosen on the basis of what tools the relevant Commission services expect to be widely available within the target group.”

It is the selected text in italic, which causes problems for two main reasons:

1. it goes against the principle of equality: based on this principle, a minority of people (and businesses), that chooses not to use a proprietary file format or application can be excluded. In practice many cases can be observed where project applicants for European research or funding programmes are forced to use the MS Windows operating system to use a specific application for submitting a proposal. It can be observed at many Commission services publishing crucial information only in proprietary file formats.

2. as can be observed without much difficulty, the desktop software market is failing: even though many alternatives of equal or superior quality and for lower prices are available, the market is dominated by one company. This situation of market failaure has been analysed by many; network effects of software have been called upon as one of the main reasons. (see also a recent study by the Dutch Central Planning Bureau, ordered by the Ministry of Economical Affairs). Now, if we acknowledge this reason, why don’t we apply this to our policies? In fact, the Commissioner for Competition Policy, Ms. Neelie Kroes addresses this fact. She said in her famous “Being Open about Standards” speech: “When open alternatives are available, no citizen or company should be forced or encouraged to use a particular company’s technology to access government information.”

Instead of offering information contained in propretary file formats, the Commission should follow its own advices as provided by IDABC and provide the information in several formats: at least the relevant Open Standard formats and, “when the usage of proprietary formats is unavoidable, alternative, internationally standardized open formats shall be provided in addition to proprietary formats,” according to the IDABC PEGSCO recommendations.

Further action on this topic is under discussion. In the mean time, the correspondence with the Commission is published below. We encourage you to use this information as a tool to start communicating in Open Standard formats with any of the Commission services and contacts.

Find here Mr. Morán García’s reply in two pages.