All around one hears that Europe is lagging far behind the rest of the world (more precisely America and Asia) in the fields of digitization and cloud technology. To catch up and learn from the mistakes of others, the European Commission‘s study on open source technology and OSBA‘s Digital Sovereignty Manifest were published. This article summarizes the relevant points made by these two publications.
For the EU it is essential to aim independency and sovereignty in politics, business, and technology. “Europe” lives understanding of security, privacy, or transparency compared to most other countries. But the delivery problems with high-tech components caused by the pandemic and war make it obvious that we need more than just open minds: we need complete solutions – both on the software and hardware side. To gain independency and ensure a strong market which is competitive on a global level, initiatives undertaken by the EU and its member states are focused on implementing the necessary steps and projects.
The Impact of Open Source – a study conducted by the European Commision
The European Commission has published its study on this topic, titled “The impact of Open Source Software and Hardware on technological independence, competitiveness and innovation in the EU economy”. It claims that the scale of Europe’s institutional capacity related to OSS, however, is disproportionately smaller than the scale of the value created by OSS. The study therefore provides a number of specific public policy recommendations aimed at achieving a digitally autonomous public sector and open R&D, enabling European growth and a digitized and internally competitive industry.(1)
Open Source is increasingly used in digital technologies around the globe. Open Source Software (OSS) has become mainstream across all sectors of the software industry (fig. 1). But the level of maturity of Open Source Hardware (OSH) currently appears to be far lower. If OSH is to follow the same development as OSS, it could constitute a cornerstone of the future of digital infrastructure and the digital transformation of the European industry.
The main breakthrough of this study is the identification of Open Source as a public good. This shows a paradigm shift from the previous difference between Closed Source and Open Source, and points to a new era in which digital businesses are built using open source assets. Case studies have revealed that by procuring OSS instead of proprietary software, the public sector could not only reduce its total costs but could also reduce or prevent vendor lock-in. Overall, the benefits of Open Source greatly outweigh the costs associated with it.
The study lists the motivating factors for participating in OSS:
- Finding technical solutions,
- avoiding vendor lock-in,
- boosting state-of-the-art technology,
- developing high quality code,
- knowledge seeking and knowledge creation,
- cost savings,
- reducing internal maintenance efforts,
- gaining access to royalty-free code,
- increasing returns on R&D investment,
- the establishment of networks,
- development of non-differentiating features (e.g., commonly used libraries),
- and enhancing reputations.
- Also: access to source code,
- reduced expenditure,
- access to an active community for knowledge exchange,
- the innovation-boosting impact of participation,
- and enhancement of security and quality.
Respondents polled by the study who use OSS and contribute code to OSS projects identified supporting open standards and interoperability as generating the highest benefits, with these being indirect and arising through network externalities rather than from direct revenues.
To address the lack of data, in particular on OSH, the study focuses on five case studies conducted on the community development of Open Source Software and Hardware (OSSH), which can lower barriers to participation, enable experimentation, and contribute to development of de facto standards. Foundations are a significant driver in the OSS and OSH ecosystems, providing a number of important services, such as standardization, knowledge transfer, and project management. Businesses participate in foundations to engage more deeply with the OSSH community, not merely as technology consumers but also as key contributors and stewards. However, while several OSS and OSH projects (some with public funding) are based in the EU, participation is not limited to EU individuals or companies. Participation correlates with company size and thus many participating companies are large USbased enterprises which use OSS for their platform-based
business models. Hence it is difficult to clearly differentiate European OSS or OSH projects. However, the case studies did reveal that both OSS and OSH ecosystems are highly and efficiently integrated with some overlaps, e.g. software support for OSH.
And yet the question arises: is there a need to differentiate European OSS or OSH projects? If Open Source is more than technology, as I believe, you cannot create a regionally limited Open Source project. (2) Supporting and contributing to Open Source projects to boost the European market and to influence developments must be part of the European digital strategy. But to exclude other parts of the world is not the approach adopted by open minded communities. The Open Source world lives off all the contributed passion, involvement and commitment, and ideas, and this is not limited to a single continent.
The study reviewed the scope, effectiveness, and impact of governments’ public and private sector policies relating to OSS, not only stemming from EU Member States but also from America and Asia. Overall, four main motivating factors were found, with a changing emphasis over time: (i) cost savings; (ii) switching costs and network effects; (iii) underproduction of public goods; and (iv) market competition and technology neutrality.
Public sector policies aim either to improve competence regarding Open Source and optimize results within the public sector or to favour OSS over proprietary software in public procurement. Such policies have different scopes, implementation mechanisms, and levels of prescriptiveness, ranging from binding laws to simple norms.
Private sector policy actions are more varied. They include guidance and support for OSS. Some governments impose or influence industrial policy to produce innovation through OSS, while others work with universities to foster OSS training and development, or reach out directly to support the creation, or support, of OSS communities. Governments can also directly fund or certify Open Source projects to achieve policy goals.
The study revealed significant differences in scope and purpose between various geographic areas. The majority of surveyed EU Member States and other countries in Europe have formal policies on OS at the national level – in most cases an OSS public procurement policy. Overall, the study found that public sector OSS policies were often not successful, even in the case of public procurement. The only truly convincing implementations occurred where Open Source has become a core component of a digital shift and is thus ingrained in the digital culture of the administration. Laws requiring the development and reuse of OSS within the public sector were also generally not successful, often due to the absence of concrete implementation guidance.
In the countries which today have increased software capabilities in the private sector (i.e. South Korea and China), Open Source has played an important role in industrial policy. European governments have taken a more laissez-faire approach and today the EU is on the back foot when it comes to capabilities in this area. Success achieved in the private sector is related to economic incentives where Open Source plays a smaller role in the public sector.
Lastly, current events provide a window of opportunity for EU leadership and commitment to achieve disproportionately favourable results. OSS foundations and standards developers have relocated to the EU as a result of recent trade conflicts. The history of neutrality represented by non-governmental entities based in the EU therefore provides an appealing solution to a problem that is likely to persist regardless of policy changes elsewhere.
Based on the results of the empirical analyses, the study makes the following recommendations (here only as excerpts, 3):
A digitally autonomous public sector
- Building Institutional Capacity – by creating a Commission-funded network of up to 20 OSPOs (Open Source Project Offices) intended to support and accelerate the consumption, creation, and application of open technologies.
- Creation of Legitimacy – by promoting digital autonomy and technological sovereignty via Open Source; integrating OSS and its communities and foundations, not only into European research and innovation policies but also into general policy frameworks, such as the European Green Deal and European industrial strategy; and evaluating options for direct contributions to OSS.
Open R&D enabling European growth
- Knowledge Creation – by providing more R&D funding related to OSS and OSH projects through existing programs and new initiatives, in particular targeting SMEs or even microenterprises and start-ups, as well as individual developers; this funding should focus on EU-specific goals, such as the European Green Deal and European industrial strategy.
- Knowledge Diffusion and Networking – by providing strong incentives for uploading code generated in publicly funded R&D projects in publicly accessible EU-based OSSH repositories; supporting the development and maintenance of platforms and depositories, as well as networks hosted in the EU. Expanding the remit of the current Open Source Observatory could be a
- Human Capital Development – by including OSS and OSH as topics into the European Qualifications Framework (EQF). For example, by providing incentives for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), Public Research Organizations (PROs), and business schools to offer specific OSSH-focused management courses, e.g. as mini MBAs. The EU should increase the diversity of Open Source contributors, starting with a research project.
A digitized and internationally competitive industry
- Financial Capital Development – by treating OSSH contributions from both individuals and corporations as charitable donations for tax purposes. The Enhanced European Innovation Council (EIC) (including the EIC Accelerator) program should be continued and explicitly opened up to applications from young, high-risk, R&D-intensive OSSH-based entrepreneurs, in order to address the lack of venture capital in the European small business ecosystem. And by launching financing instruments, such as focused Venture Capital funds, that help newly funded OSSH-based start-ups to team up with established companies.
- Regulatory Environment – by funding security audits of critical OSS projects requiring specific security-improving changes with public resources and to promote OSS in addition to standardization as a further channel of knowledge and technology transfer, e.g., as an explicit dissemination channel for Horizon Europe projects. It is also recommended to improve the inclusion of OSS in public procurement, e.g., in directives or strategies, taking into account the needs of OSS-based SMEs and to consider the interrelationship between OSS (as well as OSH and open data) in related policy initiatives.
- Domain specific recommendations – to provide funding opportunities for OSS developers and companies related to Artificial Intelligence and to launch a standard request (mandate) to the European standardization bodies to develop a European standard for a bitstream format for Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs).
- Sustainability – by establishing a right to repair, including the right to software changes, once the manufacturer ends device support since OSSH contributes to sustainability by extending the life cycle of devices, enabling reuse of components, and reducing duplicate development effort. It is also recommended that additional funding or incentives be made available in support of OSS and OSH projects, if these provide supplemental green benefits.
OSBA – Manifest for Digital Sovereignty
Parallel to the efforts adopted by the European Commission, associations and organizations in Germany are also campaigning for the mainstream establishment of Open Source since they recognize it as path to a secure, digitally sovereign, independent IT infrastructure that can become the prerequisite for a digitally sovereign state (fig. 2). For example, the Open Source Business Alliance issued a „Manifest for Digital Sovereignty“ shortly after the EUCommission in December 2021. (4)
It understands digital sovereignty as a prerequisite for sustainable digital policy. Sovereignty is an essential foundation of European states and societies, not only concerning the sovereignty of the state, but also that of the individual. As all areas of our lives are becoming digitalized, it must be a goal of the state to be digitally sovereign as well. The OSBA sees Open Source software as an essential building block of digital sovereignty.
Germany and Europe have a big window of opportunity to once again become centers of innovation and economic leaders through targeted cooperation between research and business. This cooperation is essentially driven by Open Source software. Successful digitization is characterized by a high degree of networking. The goal must be to further increase the degree of networking between innovation-driving actors, with a special focus on software and data as the basis for digital innovation development so as to create new digital value that corresponds to the European value system.
In order to become and remain capable of acting in a self-determined manner, Europe needs its own ecosystem of trustworthy hardware and software manufacturers and service providers that are open to third parties, operate in accordance with European values on the basis of Open Source technologies, and are competitive on the global market. The OSBA claims that the diversity of leading European providers is the best protection against dependencies. To achieve this, Europe needs open standards based on its own values that engage and support European and non-European companies as well.
Similar to the efforts undertaken by the EU Commission, OSBA has also developed action guidelines and calls to facilitate the path to digital sovereignty:
- Better educational conditions for an increase in digital literacy. This concerns all levels of government. It begins with children and pupils who must be introduced to digital technology, processes, and design possibilities from the very beginning, but also including values such as sovereignty, privacy, and cooperation. Likewise, the development of digital competences must also be more firmly anchored in professional qualifications as well as in continuous further and advanced training. A digitally sovereign society begins with the individual; the basic prerequisites for individual sovereignty are basic digital education and participation. Basic digital knowledge must already be taught in school and further developed throughout an individual’s lifetime (lifelong learning). The development of the ability to shape an entire society requires people who can and want to do so and who are also aware of their responsibility towards the society they live in.
- Innovation and competition for greater dynamism in Europe as a marketplace. Important levers on the way to digital sovereignty are technology-open research, development, and innovations in value creation. The development of European Open Source platforms and the establishment of distribution platforms are important goals. In public procurement processes, too, Open Source solutions are to be preferred if they are equally functionally suitable, so as to increase investment security, transparency, and trustworthiness of the solutions used as well as to reduce permanent dependencies. Above all, the cooperation between research and business must be strengthened and promoted in order to enable digital value creation. In this regard, the OSBA also places importance on the development and maintenance of open standards, especially with regard to Open Source, as these benefit the entire economy and public administration, regardless of individual interests.
- A digitally sovereign state as a framework for vital digital ecosystems. The state’s ability to act and speak on digital policy plays a central role, both nationally and at the European and global level. As said, Europe needs its own trustworthy hardware and software manufacturers that are competitive on a global market level. European initiatives that drive the development of entire digital ecosystems must be supported sustainably and also initiated with European partners. At the same time, public procurers must always pursue dual or multi-sourcing strategies for critical components in order to enable short-term changes and to avoid risks resulting from dependency. Trustworthy IT is decisive for the success of digitalization. This is best achieved with open, generally verifiable technology. There must be no backdoors or other channels through which data can fall into the hands of unauthorized persons; business, government, and citizens must be able to communicate confidentially and securely in digital networks. Data is the essence of the digital. It is not just about making data available but, above all, about providing data infrastructures that are capable of implementing the need for protection of citizens, businesses, science, and the state. They must all be able to freely decide where and how their data is stored. To strengthen Germany’s and Europe’s digital sovereignty, it is essential that the state itself acts as the lead buyer of appropriate solutions. The OSBA therefore advocates that the use of Open Source software and other open technologies, as well as compliance with European standards, should become minimum standards for public procurement.
The study of the EU Commission and the manifest of the OSBA draw similar conclusions regarding the use and promotion of Open Source with the aim of shaping Europe into a digitally sovereign market location. The fact that these are direct calls for action and not mere summaries of goals that have already been implemented shows the path Europe still has to continue along because it has been left behind technologically speaking. Of course, this is an opportunity to do things differently and do so in a well-founded manner. But we must not get lost in federalism either. We must strengthen it and get going! Digitization is now.
1. https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/29effe73-2c2c-11ec-bd8e-01aa75ed71a1/language-en p. 14
3. https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/29effe73-2c2c-11ec-bd8e-01aa75ed71a1/language-en p. 18pp
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