EC pledges to promote open standards

With a side swipe at Microsoft, competition commissioner Neelie Kroes has said that future Commission technology procurements will have to support open standards
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The European Commission has pledged to support open standards and promote interoperability, to avoid vendor lock-in of European governments to any one technology.

In a speech to OpenForum Europe in Brussels on Tuesday, European commissioner for competition policy, Neelie Kroes, said future Commission product procurements would be based on open standards.

"For all future IT developments and procurement procedures, the Commission shall promote the use of products that support open, well-documented standards," said Kroes. "Interoperability is a critical issue for the Commission, and usage of well-established open standards is a key factor to achieve and endorse it."

Kroes said the Commission must avoid being locked in to any one vendor.

"The Commission must do its part," said Kroes. "It must not rely on one vendor, it must not accept closed standards, and it must refuse to become locked into a particular technology – jeopardising maintenance of full control over the information in its possession."

Kroes made reference to the anticompetition case against Microsoft, the only company to have been fined twice over the same antitrust issues, as an illustration of competition problems in technology.

"We all know that the Commission has found competition problems in at least some technology markets," said Kroes. "The Commission has never before had to issue two periodic penalty payments in a competition case... And there are other cases of alleged unlawful conduct pending."

The Commission fined Microsoft for anti-competitive practices in 2004 for failing to provide adequate workgroup server interoperability information to rivals. It then fined Microsoft again in 2008 for failure to pay the first fine.

The Commission also said earlier this year that it would investigate allegations about Microsoft's behaviour, including allegations of rigged voting during International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) accreditation for Microsoft Office Open XML (OOXML). Microsoft has admitted to encouraging partners to join national voting bodies to push through OOXML.

Kroes said any company involved in a standards voting process that was found to have voted for reasons other than the technology, risked breaching antitrust rules.

"If voting in the standard-setting context is influenced less by the technical merits of the technology but rather by side agreements, inducements, package deals, reciprocal agreements, or commercial pressure... then these risk falling foul of the competition rules," warned Kroes.

The process whereby OOXML became an ISO standard was the subject of much controversy. Critics of Microsoft accused the company of trying to push through OOXML as a proprietary standard. The critics argued that this could lock governments into using Microsoft products in perpetuity, as governments need to store documents indefinitely.

Kroes said any company that did seek to include proprietary technology in standards would not be benefiting its customers.

"I fail to see the interest of customers in including proprietary technology in standards when there are no clear and demonstrable benefits over non-proprietary alternatives," said Kroes.

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