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Summary:

The European Union’s new Digital Agenda, which is designed to improve access to technology, could force companies such as Apple to open up their businesses by requiring them to offer interoperability and open standards, even if they are not the dominant player in a market.

The European Union’s new Digital Agenda, an ambitious program of incentives and legislation designed to improve access to technology across the EU, could force companies such as Apple to open up their businesses by requiring them to offer more interoperability and use open standards. It could force more openness even if those companies are not the dominant player in a specific market, because the language in the EU Agenda says that such measures could apply merely to “significant” players in a market — broadening the scope of previous antitrust rules substantially.

Currently, companies are only subject to antitrust or anticompetitive oversight if they are a dominant player in a specific market. Although the Agenda doesn’t have the force of legislation, it is clear that the European Union — and specifically Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner in charge of the Digital Agenda — is focusing on open standards and interoperability as a key plank in its attempt to broaden access to technology for its citizens. The Agenda outlines what the EU sees as seven significant obstacles to an improved digital economy, and No. 2 on the list is a lack of interoperability:

Europe does not yet reap the maximum benefit from interoperability. Weaknesses in standard-setting, public procurement and coordination between public authorities prevent digital services and devices used by Europeans from working together as well as they should. The Digital Agenda can only take off if its different parts and applications are interoperable and based on standards and open platforms.

The Agenda states that the Commission “will examine the feasibility of measures that could lead significant market players to license interoperability information while at the same time promoting innovation and competition,” and proposes that EU members develop and adopt a “European Interoperability Strategy and European Interoperability Framework” that would apply in all member countries. These measures could mean that companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft have to open up their businesses more than they have previously, or risk the threat of sanctions. Google in particular has already been the target of the EU’s wrath on privacy issues.

Kroes has talked specifically about Apple in discussing the rationale behind the Digital Agenda, saying the company and its control over iTunes raises many of the issues she is concerned about around interoperability. The EU Commissioner stated that significant market players “cannot just choose to deny interoperability with their product,” and that while she is in favor of innovation, “any company which holds a significant market position and acts against interoperability should know that the Commission is ready to act to defend the interests of European consumers.”

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Ricardo Martins

  1. Sounds like a good way to stifle innovation. If you can’t compete, require the innovators to be open.

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    1. That’s a fair point — in some ways, innovation and openness are antithetical. The EU says it wants to balance those two things, but it could be hard to find a happy medium between them.

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      1. I believe the opposite is true. Innovation is driven primarily by a level playing field with well-defined rules of participation. The PC and later the Internet were both “open” in this sense and have seen tremendous innovation.

        However, I disagree strongly with Apple’s hand being forced by government regulation (and foreign government at that). It would be much better to see market demand influence Apple in this direction.

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