On the eve of a new EU constitution, Poland suggests distance from 'open source'

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5:45 pm EST November 3, 2009 · A press officer with the Delegation to the European Commission in Washington contacted Betanews this afternoon, stating that the press office could not attribute the document being circulated as "EIF 2.0" this week as an official European Commission document. It is therefore not a leaked version of EIF 2.0 as was suggested elsewhere; and it's extremely unlikely that the Commission is actively considering replacing its last draft of EIF 2.0, completed in July 2008, with the version that Betanews was able to trace to the Polish Ministry of the Interior.

Just hours ago, Czech President Vaclav Klaus was the last to add his signature to a list of 26 others, effectively ratifying sweeping amendments to the Treaty of Lisbon -- effectively, the constitution of the European Union. A new centralized executive authority will be created, dramatically expanding the roles of the EU's President and formalizing the role of its own, continent-wide Foreign Minister. A country upon countries is born.

As the 27 member nations agree to cede more of their lawmaking authority to a centralized executive branch -- whose members have yet to be elected -- they continue to grapple with the subject of how they will interoperate, sharing not only information but commerce and technology, in a system where their own national laws may each be superseded. Since 2004, the EU had been looking to the open source software model as an example of free collaboration among independent entities willing to work together for the common good. And OSS proponents have shown pride in the fact that their model was directly cited by the first edition of the European Interoperability Framework (EIF), a set of formal recommendations for how countries may share public services with one another.

A draft 2.0 of the EIF has been under discussion since 2007, and has been awaiting the Lisbon Treaty amendments before starting the process of formal ratification. Now, a document that purports to be a newly proposed draft of EIF 2.0, appearing for the first time a week ago Monday on the Web site of Poland's Internal Affairs Ministry, would actually strip those OSS references from the framework, in the interest of what it calls, among other things, "administrative simplification."

The Ministry explicitly states that the document is not an actual draft. So contrary to numerous reports, the document in question is not official EU business. It does not actually contain text that may appear in the final draft, says the Ministry, beating around the bush a little bit instead of admitting that it's a mockup.

Indeed, the text of the Polish Ministry document differs substantially in both content and size (it's 56 pages shorter) than the Draft for Public Comments on version 2.0 (PDF available here), published in July 2008. But the Ministry is seeking public comment on the document, ahead of a meeting scheduled for November 12 in Malmo, Sweden, where the Ministry says the actual latest text of EIF 2.0 will be unveiled.

The fact that the Ministry's document was not titled in sync with the actual EU project name ("European Public Services" as opposed to "pan-European Public Services") should have sent up some red flags. It would appear this document is actually a kind of "floater" or "dipstick" -- a test of alternative language just to ascertain the depths of public sentiment or apathy to a change in course. The Ministry does state the document was submitted by the European Commission; however, the document itself does not carry any EC authoritative marks. Betanews has been in contact with the Delegation of the European Commission in Washington today, in an effort to ascertain the origin of the document, and will report further as we hear more. One possibility is that the origin is a legitimate commissioner seeking public input on alternative language.

That alternative language would be a radical shift from the current EIF 2.0, which not only uses OSS as a model around which to base cooperative services, but states the EU's preference for open source software as more likely to adhere to standards, and more likely to change with the needs of customers as opposed to making customers change to suit the software. The Polish Ministry version would strike that language entirely, replacing it with a suggested "Eleventh Principle" in a list of twelve. Under Principle 11, quite literally, public services would be urged to wait until the last possible moment before choosing any kind of technology investment, and then simply make whatever choice appears most adaptable at the time.

"When establishing European Public Services, public administrations should focus on functional needs and defer decisions on technology as long as possible in order to avoid imposing specific technologies or products on their partners and to be able to adapt to the rapidly evolving technological environment," reads the Polish Interior Ministry draft language. "Public administrations should render access to public services independent of any specific technology or product."

Open source software is nice because it's typically reusable, meaning it's licensed under less constrained terms than commercial products. But that's about it for OSS under the Polish suggested language. Rather than model principles of openness in government on openness in software, as does EIF 1.0, the Polish version suggests that since some software is more open than others, some governments are more open than others.

In short, the Polish version would substitute the OSS principles with something right out of science fiction, literally called the openness continuum.

"Interoperability involves the sharing of information and knowledge between organizations, hence implies a certain degree of openness. There are varying degrees of openness," the English-language text reads. "Specifications, software and software development methods that promote collaboration and the results of which can freely be accessed, reused and shared are considered open and lie at one end of the spectrum while non-documented, proprietary specifications, proprietary software and the reluctance or resistance to reuse solutions, i.e. the 'not invented here' syndrome, lie at the other end. The spectrum of approaches that lies between these two extremes can be called the openness continuum."

Governments should decide how open they should be or need to be on a case-by-case basis, the document goes on, taking into account factors such as how much they can actually afford. And it's here that the Polish document would blast the EIF's embrace of open source to kingdom come: "While there is a correlation between openness and interoperability, it is also true that interoperability can be obtained without openness, for example via homogeneity of the ICT [information and communications technology] systems, which implies that all partners use, or agree to use, the same solution to implement a European Public Service."

As the Polish Interior Ministry advises citizens, according to English translation, "We encourage all community organizations interested in interoperability topics electronically to submit comments and suggestions to the document, which can be used by the Polish delegation at the meeting on November 12."

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