The European Commission is placing open standards and open-source software at the centre of its efforts to promote interoperable e-government services with a new working paper introduced this month.
The Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, argues in the report that open standards, and to an extent open source, are crucial to making new e-government services work with each other and with enterprise systems. The paper, which will be used as a reference point for policy and decision-makers around Europe, is the latest document pushing forward the far-reaching eEurope initiative on e-government services.
However, the extent to which governments should encourage the use of open source and open standards remains a matter of controversy, especially for large proprietary software companies such as Microsoft.
"Linking up Europe: The importance of interoperability for e-government services" shows the extent to which open source and open standards have become accepted into the mainstream of European policy as necessary for the future development of public sector systems, particularly in ensuring interoperability and an escape from "closed, vertical, unscaleable and frequently proprietary information systems".
The document calls for "open interfaces and specifications" for components of e-government services including "open and non-proprietary document formats" and "the means of communicating with supporting back-office processes".
Currently many of the standard formats and protocols used by governments and enterprises are neither open nor non-proprietary, such as Microsoft Office document formats.
The document has less to say about the role of open-source software in promoting interoperability, but says that open source will be "encouraged" by the eEurope interoperability framework to be published this year. It also notes that the eTEN programme, which promotes trans-European e-services deployment, will ask for "the use of open standards and where applicable, the use of open source" when funding projects.
Open-source software is increasingly seen by European governments as a way of encouraging local software industries, because it is not owned by any one entity, and thus theoretically places small, local developers on a level playing field with large foreign companies.
However, this position has met with resistance from vendors of proprietary software, with Microsoft reportedly authorising its sales representatives to dramatically lower prices when competing for contracts with Linux, the open-source operating system.
Intellect, a UK IT industry body which counts Microsoft, Oracle and other large software companies among its members, recently criticised the UK government's position on open source, which has been developed as part of the eEurope initiative. The UK is considering requiring contractors who develop software for the public sector to use open-source licences as a default.
"Intellect advised that the government should give serious consideration to the impact that adoption of a default position would have on its ability to choose from a wide variety of partners, including commercial software developers, and in seeking innovation, quality and value for money from its investments in R&D software projects," Intellect said in a statement.
A US-based industry body called CompTIA is also fighting open source in government via the Initiative for Software Choice.