Future of open source software and open standards in the European Commission
Where new European Commission leaders stand on open source
At this writing, the European Parliament is wrapping up committee hearings and votes to approve or reject the proposed slate of new European Commissioners and Vice Presidents put forward in September by European Commission (EC) President-elect Jean Claude Juncker. These men and women (one from each of the 28 countries in the European Union), if approved by the Parliament, will lead and manage the activities of the Directorates General (DGs), which function as the EC's departments or ministries.
What do we know about the proposed leaders who will direct the EC's information and communication technology (ICT) policy? And what familiarity do they have with—and how may they approach—issues concerning open source software and open standards?
The short answer is that it's too early to tell. Neither of the key Commissioners with ICT portfolios named by Juncker have a track record in this space. Nonetheless, a review of the background of these leaders and their performance in the recently completed Parliamentary hearings give some indication that there is reason for optimism, yet a need for outreach and education.
President-Elect Junker has named two politicians to lead on ICT for the new Commission: former Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip has been named as Vice President for Digital Single Market; and incumbent European Commissioner for Energy Gunther Oettinger (a German politician and lawyer) has been named as Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society. Ansip, in his role as Vice President, will oversee the activities of a group of Commissioners (which includes Oettinger) in order to break down silos and better coordinate overall Commission activities. (Note: the enhanced authority of EC vice presidents is a new arrangement put in place by Juncker.)
Both Ansip and Oettinger were surprise appointments given that they had expressed interest in other portfolios and since neither have direct experience in the ICT industry or on ICT policy. Both, however, are recognized as able leaders and quick studies of new issues areas.
This duo is set to replace a well-respected leader on ICT policy. The departing Commission VP for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes, has been an articulate advocate of competing globally to grow the European tech industry. She has, in a number of cases, resisted efforts by some in the Commission to push Europe toward a more protectionist stance. She has also been a strong proponent of open standards and leveling the playing field for open source software.
Andrus Ansip, whose private sector experience is in banking and business, served from 2005 to 2014 as Prime Minister of Estonia. His country has been recognized—even more so since his Commission appointment—for its embrace of ICT in ever widening areas of public and private life. He demonstrated his knowledge of and comfort with tech issues at his Parliamentary hearing on October 7. One influential member of the European Parliament (MEP) who was pleased with his appointment and performance at the hearing, even branded him as "the real ‘Internet Commissioner," which some have interpreted as both a compliment to Ansip and a back-handed rebuke to Gunther Oettinger.
Many policy makers at senior levels—particularly those without experience in ICT—are not expected to have a firm grasp of issues surrounding open source and open standards. Nonetheless, Ansip displayed facility on these issues during his hearing, calling for software produced by the EC to be made open source. When he was initially asked about "free software," he responded by talking about "open source." Although a minor point, it provides indication that he is not new to these issues.
As the incumbent European Commissioner for Energy, Gunther Oettinger is recognized for taking on some tough issues in Brussels and his ability to master a new policy area. Prior to his rise politics, he worked at an accounting and tax consulting business and later practiced law. He rose in regional German politics before being named as the German Commissioner at the beginning of the Barroso Commission's second term in 2010. He is thought to have learned the details of his job quickly and has ably served the Commission at a time of increasingly complicated and controversial energy policy.
The same effort is expected of him as the new Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society. Oettinger's performance at his Parliamentary hearing, however, was not as comfortable and well-received as Ansip's. Per media reports, he came off as well-briefed, but not terribly comfortable or enthusiastic discussing some of the intricacies of ICT policy. In an analysis provided by the EU policy and politics journal, European Voice, "For many MEPs, the latter (Oettinger) is a pro-business candidate, with a limited understanding of the challenges to human liberties posed by the internet and only limited interest in the subject itself. If ever they were looking for a complement to Oettinger, Ansip is their man."
Again, with the caveat that it's too early to draw any major conclusions, there is reason for optimism that the new Commission will design and implement policies that will enable the further growth of open source and open standards. But, there is also much to be done in terms of engagement and education.