UK Open Standards: Time to act
The Cabinet Office is currently conducting an important consultation on Open Standards
The question is whether companies offering Free Software will in future have the opportunity to sell their services to the British government. Whether or not British money will continue to be spent on supporting proprietary standards which lock in public bodies, currently hangs in the balance.
The Government has already publicly backed away from a strong definition of what an Open Standard is, and current indications are not at all good. On 12 April 2012, the Cabinet Office published an article indicating that it might lean away from freedom and openness, and towards adopting a definition of Open Standards which would exclude Free Software.
FSFE is working with the Free Software Foundation, Open Rights Group, Open Source Consortium, Open Forum Europe, the Open Source Initiative and others, to ensure that strong responses are submitted in favour of freedom. However, without the help of individuals like you, our voices risk being drowned out by those corporate interests who want to keep public money tied up in their proprietary products.
What you can do
Please help FSFE and our partners to open up opportunities for Free Software by taking part in this public consultation. To do this, please download the questionnaire and submit your own response to the consultation before the May 1st deadline. You can answer as few or as many of the 27 questions as you wish (questions are on pages 22 and 23 of the PDF). Some of the issues are complex. You may find the links at the end of this message useful when formulating your answers. Most important in your responses is to argue in favour of truly Open Standards - standards which anyone can implement, without asking permission or paying royalties, whether in Free Software or in proprietary programs. You will do it best in supporting restriction-free standards, which don't require those who implement them to pay patent licensing royalties.
Below, we have identified the questions which from FSFE's perspective matter most, and outlined how we are going to answer them in our own response to the consultation. You are welcome to use this as a guide for your own response. Please take some time to write personal answers in your own words - using the arguments given here.
Please pay particular attention to the following questions, with special consideration to question 8.
- 1. How does this definition of open standard compare to your view of what makes a standard 'open'?
- The formulation "Government bodies must consider open standards [...]" is relatively weak. We suggest to replace this with "use" as in the following: "Government bodies must use open standards [...]" It is also not clear what exactly is meant by a "government body". Software and in particular document formats come with strong network effects, and one government body using proprietary formats might cause problems for many others using formats based on Open Standards. If an Open Standards policy is to be effective, it needs to encompass the largest possible set of organisations. In summary, we propose the following formulation:
- "Public bodies or private bodies exercising public functions must use open standards [...]"
- 5. What effect would this policy have on improving value for money in the provision of government services?
- The policy would substantially open up competition for government business. For the buyers, this means lower prices, and better quality. The absence of lock-in would allow government bodies to switch suppliers with relative ease. This would lead to improved performance as vendors compete to keep government customers loyal.
- 6. Would this policy support innovation, competition and choice in delivery of government services?
- Since Open Standards can be implemented without restrictions, the proposed policy would greatly contribute to supporting innovation, competition and choice in the delivery of government services. Standards provide a platform on on top of which businesses can compete, and Open Standards mean that there is no limit to the number and approaches which businesses can take to satisfy government needs.
- 8. How could adopting (Fair) Reasonable and Non Discriminatory ((F)RAND) standards deliver a level playing field for open source and proprietary software solution providers?
- (F)RAND standards cannot deliver a level playing field for participants in the software market. Most (F)RAND standards require a royalty fee to be paid for each copy of a program that is distributed. This is eminently impossible for Free Software, which anyone may copy and distribute as they choose. It also clashes with the prohibition on additional restricitions imposed by the GNU General Public License, the most widely used Free Software license. (F)RAND standards also discriminate against Free Software distributed under "permissive" licenses that allow proprietary implementations, since they often lack a central body which could successfully negotiate for a patent license. As discussed here, this is likely to pit small implementers against large, well-resourced patent holders, resulting anticompetitive terms.
- 9. Does selecting open standards which are compatible with a free or open source software licence exclude certain suppliers or products?
- Selecting Open Standards does not exclude any supplier. Since by definition, there are no restrictions on implementing an Open Standard, developers of proprietary software have the option of including support for the relevant interfaces or file formats in their programs, at no cost beyond that of the implementation itself. Claims that requiring Open Standards would exclude one ygroup of suppliers are generally without merit.
- 10. Does a promise of non-assertion of a patent when used in open source software alleviate concerns relating to patents and royalty charging?
- Businesses serving government needs need a firm legal basis to build upon. While a promise not to assert a patent is generally a friendly gesture by the patent holder, it is no replacement for a clear policy requirement for Open Standards, which can be implemented without royalty payments or restrictions. Promises of non-assertion may eventually be rescinded (e.g. when the patents it covers are sold to another company). Commitments made to standardisation organisations are much more reliable.
British Computer Society members
The British Computer Society is currently writing its own response to this consultation, which could have a major impact on the Government's future policy. If you are a BCS member, use this page to tell the BCS why Open Standards are critical for Free Software, interoperability, and value for public money.