Press Release: EU must adhere to own policy on Open Standards

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A group of universities, civil organisations and individuals across Europe have sent an appeal to the European Commission expressing their concerns on the lock-in effects of proprietary file formats for digital documents. Despite all the European interoperability regulations, directives and recommendations, most agencies and funding programmes keep using closed formats to communicate with applicants and beneficiaries, and require that these formats be used for reporting. These closed formats include MS Office formats, but also non-standard XML forms, non-standard versions of PDF forms, and others.

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. This makes Open Standards essential for governments, companies, organisations and individual users of information technologies.

Software vendors have often been able to capture users into near monopolies in the last decades. This tendency has hindered innovation, interoperability and access to technology and knowledge. To free society from such vendor dependencies, important international movements have grown around Free Software (also know as Open Source Software) and Open Standards. These technologies provide fundamental requirements for democratic societies, such as vendor independence, interoperability, information durability and a level playing field for innovation.

The European Commission has recognised the importance of Open Standards and made it a requirement already in the EU-funded FP5 programme (1998-2002), and subsequent funding programmes continue to encourage their beneficiaries to make their results available in open formats. The European Commissioner for Competition, Neelie Kroes, insisted that “The Commission must do its part. It must not rely on one vendor, it must not accept closed standards, and it must refuse to become locked into a particular technology, jeopardizing maintenance of full control over the information in its possession.”

This year, Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media, added: “We need to take advantage of the win-win of open interfaces and standards such that the market can grow for all. Dominant players may try to use proprietary standards to lock consumers into their products or to extract very high royalties, ultimately stifling innovation and foreclosing market entry by new players. EC competition rules have here an important role to play in tackling such practices.”

The ‘knowledge triangle’ – research, education and innovation – is a core factor in European efforts to meet the ambitious Lisbon goals. Numerous programmes, initiatives and support measures are carried out at EU level in support of knowledge. Nevertheless, the EU-funded R&D programmes obligate applicants and beneficiaries to use closed formats for applying and reporting.

The allied groups promoting this petition strongly recommend the use of internationally standardised Open Document Exchange Formats, such as the ISO-adopted Open Document Format (ODF) for office applications. They request the EC to stop forcing EU citizens and organisations to use specific software from one vendor. They call for documents in Open Standard file formats so users can choose the software they prefer and require that project results of EC funded projects be made available in Open Standard file formats.

The Free Knowledge Institute, initiator of this campaign, is aware that the changes requested do imply costs and efforts, but are needed in order to make the Information Society a place for all to learn, create, communicate and do business. Wouter Tebbens, president of the FKI, says: “The need for Open Standards was detected many years ago. Why do EU bodies keep forcing citizens and organisations to use the tools of one particular software vendor? I think it is time for an intregral plan for vendor-neutral ICT and for a free knowledge society. Time to implement the policies and recommendations into action.” He adds: “Within our coalition there are many experts in relevant areas who would be glad to discuss the best approach to make this change happen.”

Many European citizens and organisations share the concerns. The European Commission is requested to adhere to its own existing policies and recommendations for the adoption of Open Standards. The European Commission must support durability of information, facilitate the exchange of information between projects and leave room for innovation on the software application side, now and in the future.