October 26, 2006

Where ODF stands in the EU

Author: Tom Chance

A battle over Open Document Format (ODF) and the treatment of open standards is taking place deep in the bureaucracy of the European Commission. The information came to light during aKademy, the KDE world summit, in Dublin last month.

An entire day of aKademy was devoted to the OpenDocument movement, placing technical discussions alongside political presentations. KDE has good reason to be interested in the status of ODF in Europe, since a number of contributors and companies use KDE on the continent. Moreover, KOffice uses ODF as its default file format and is leading the way both in the implementation and development of some OpenDocument standards.

A key presentation on the ODF day came from Dr. Barbara Held, who is the Enterprise and Industry Directorate-General of the European Commission Program for Interoperable Delivery of pan-European eGovernment Services to Public Administrations, Businesses and Citizens (IDABC). Got that? Right. The IDABC basically exists to smooth over the technical problems within the European Union caused by the 25 member states exchanging data. The existence of multiple, incompatible file formats poses a formidable problem for the EU, so the IDABC was tasked with developing a strategy to overcome this.

As with anything in European politics, the IDABC's approach is multifaceted and complex. It funds and implements various networks and services, including those of common interest across the EU and those that are prioritised because of their high impact. It also makes available generic services and tools that support interoperability across the EU.

The scope of the IDABC's remit on this matter and its overall approach can be discerned from the following statement, to be found in the EU's eEurope Action Plan 2005. It commits the Commission to an "interoperability framework" that "will be based on open standards" and that will "encourage the use of open source software," which Held says is a necessity given the EU's transnational structure. That's a high-level statement of support for the free software community, and it gets better.

The IDABC drafted something called the European Interoperability Framework, which serves as a guideline to member states and EU bodies. It identifies the core requirements of administrations, which are: availability and reliability, security, accessibility, sustainability (including availability over the long term), independence from vendor lock-in, value for money (including the cost of software implementation and licensing), scalability, and re-usability. By accounting for these comprehensive requirements, the EIF was a strong statement in support of the kinds of open standards that the free software community favours. Namely, a standard should be adopted and managed by a non-profit organisation and be open to all interested parties. It should be fully published, with the specifications being made available free of charge. Any intellectual property contained within the standard, or irrevocably connected to it, should be made available on a royalty-free basis. Finally, there should be no constraints on the re-use of the standard.

Such a strong framework is the result of the factors that influenced its development. In the first place, there was a political impulse from the IDABC, and previous statements such as those in the eEurope Action Plan 2005. But there were also pressures from member states, the IDABC, and other stakeholders who needed to develop and maintain their own internal policies on exchange formats. These two factors led to a framework that accounted for a wide range of demanding requirements.

The upshot of this complicated process was a set of recommendations that the IDABC made to the high-level member state officials in 2004. They specifically said that states should adopt revisable XML-based formats, but stopped short of recommending the OASIS Open Document Format.

Why would they go so far, arriving at a framework that surely recommends ODF, and then fail to follow through? So far as the IDABC were concerned, ODF met all of their requirements. In fact, Held said in her talk that "in the view of the European administrations and Member States, the ODF standard is at the very top of the pile by far from all other proposed open standards." So why not just recommend ODF? Held said she was unable to comment officially on the matter, but she did explain the general reasoning that led to this decision.

To begin with, the legal definition of an open standard in the EU excludes those controlled by industry consortia; ODF is controlled by the OASIS consortium. The EU only recognises standards published by international bodies such as the ISO and the IEC. Whilst version 1.0 of the ODF was accepted as an ISO standard in May 2006, subsequent versions need to be resubmitted, and it is unlikely that this will happen again until the release of version 1.2 in 2008. The second problem is that the intellectual property models of European standardisation bodies and key players usually include RAND, which makes them incompatible with the stipulations of the EIF.

Third, and most troubling of all, is that the Commission must remain neutral between competing international standards. Whilst member states and EU bodies can certainly discriminate between such standards, the EU itself cannot embed such a decision in a European requirement to use, for example, ODF rather than Microsoft's OOXML. The background of this neutrality is fair competition, which is found in directive 98/34. This directive may be revised, since this is such a hot topic at the moment, so there is room to overcome this barrier to ODF becoming the official format of the EU.

To summarise the labyrinthine complexity of this, the EU is currently moving toward the standardisation of document formats, and internally many EU bodies and member states prefer ODF. But the EU is unable to require the use of ODF across the board.

So where do we go from here? The more stakeholders voice their support for ODF, the more likely it is that Europe will standardise on it, either with a legally binding decision or a series of unambiguous recommendations. Citizens of the EU can talk to their representatives in the European Parliament, pressing home the advantages of ODF by referring to the EIF and the IDABC's recommendations made in 2004, and also talk to their national representatives, increasing the pressure to standardise on ODF on a national and even local level.

Even without a decision of recommendation from the Commission, ODF seems the clear leader amongst document formats, as confirmed by Held's statement in its favour.