The trouble with Europe's software megadeal

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The Free Software Foundation Europe thinks there's some serious trouble with the European Commission's largest ever software contract.

The contract is not quite as guilty as charged. But the FSFE's attention has exposed greater problem, of eurocratic proportions.

The FSFE said the EC had signed its €189m SACHA II contract in "direct contradiction" with decisions and guidelines designed to prevent EU bodies being tied into parasitic contracts with proprietary software vendors.

The sad thing is that SACHA II contradicts only what people like FSFE president Karsten Gerloff wished the Commission's decisions and guidelines said. The guidelines themselves are too weak and wishy-washy to change anything but people's perceptions.

The SACHA II contract tied up the lion's share of the EC's software purchasing with one company, Dutch middleman PC Ware. This was in direct contradicted of Europe's Digital Agenda, said the FSFE.

Was it?

The Digital Agenda contained some fine words. It decried a "lack of interoperability" in European computer systems and the "weak" standards that presided over them.

It even declared how the Digital Agenda, "Europe's strategy for a flourishing digital economy by 2020", wouldn't get anywhere without interoperable standards and "open platforms".

It really did give the impression it was going to do something about the way public procurement favoured proprietary software vendors. But its only relevant proposal was the production of a report next year.

European Interoperability Fudge

This might all change with this week when the Commission is expected to publish V2.0 of its European Interoperability Framework. If the Digital Agenda beats the drum, the EIF plays the tune. The Digital Agenda said European Union countries should adopt the EIF by 2013.

But the open source lobby is bracing itself for the EIF to be one almighty fudge. Early drafts were hopeful, they say, with high-fluting talk of open standards. Intense lobbying by software companies that own money-making rights over standards is said to have forced a number of revisions that will make the final version about as effective as a battalion of United Nations peace-keepers under siege.

Don't expect the EIF to have any teeth. It's not as though Brussels has the political clout to mandate open standards like they did recently in India.

What you can expect from Europe is spelled out quite clearly in its Malmö and Granada Declarations on interoperability and standards. The Digital Agenda said EU countries should implement these declarations by 2013 as well. EC's SACHA II contract was in direct contradiction with them as well, said the FSFE.

A mug's eyeful

But being declarations, they are little more than more high-fluting talk. European ministers declared at Granada on 19 April that they should "consider...promoting" open standards.

They declared at Malmö on 18 November 2009 that they would "promote" open specifications. Their commitments to open systems were even more vague than bolder declarations that in the UK have never amounted to much despite their repetition.

While all this ineffectual chatter goes on, big software contracts like SACHA II two are tying the major software vendors up with cosy contracts that will keep them in sports cars and transatlantic travel for another half a decade or more.

This is no problem if you subscribe to the belief that public policy is determined not by the letter of the declaration but by its frisson. If enough people believe it, it may happen. Like salvation.

That is why it is interesting to hear that the FSFE will be taking a closer look at the procurement regime of these big contracts. It's most scandalous charge against SACHA II was that it discriminated in favour of proprietary vendors, sending them off on a €189m gravy train while everyone else chatted in the sidings about the inequities of software procurement.

But the FSFE hasn't specified how this discrimination was carried out. It ought to present its case if it wants to stop the train.

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