The Autorité de la concurrence launched in 2014 a sector inquiry into the standardisation and certification processes in France. After an extensive review of the sector and the conduct of a public consultation which attracted over a hundred responses from stakeholders, the Autorité published its findings on 17, November 2015.
The adoption of standards has a positive effect on competition by facilitating compatibility and interoperability between different products and services. But if standards are misused, they may restrict competition. To improve the standardisation process, the Autorité recommends reducing and streamlining the number of standardisation bodies and strengthening the steering role played by the association AFNOR, which oversees the process. The Autorité also calls for greater transparency.
To avoid the adoption of standards whose economic costs outweigh their anticipated benefits, or which are biased towards certain market operators and act as artificial barriers to entry, the Autorité recommends the implementation of a mandatory preliminary step to examine the added value expected from the proposed introduction of a new standard or the revision of an existing standard. This preliminary review would also address the risk that the standard unduly restricts trade flows within the Single Market or that it includes an IP right which may act as a discriminatory barrier to entry. In this regard, the Autorité’s findings point to a relative consensus amongst stakeholders on the need for measures to deter failures to declare or wrongful declarations of IP rights during the standardisation process.
Contrary to standardisation, certification, which consists in third-party confirmation that a product or service meets certain characteristics defined in a reference document, is open to competition. While certification activities are subject, in certain sectors, to an accreditation process, the latter is seen in practice as a prerequisite for all sectors, including those where accreditation is not compulsory. To mitigate the negative impact on competition, the Autorité recommends the publication, on the website of the French Committee of accreditation (COFARC), of a list of sectors for which accreditation is compulsory, as well as estimated accreditation costs (signalled by some stakeholders as prohibitive), which should be regularly compared with European counterparts.
The Autorité also underscores another competition concern on the certification market, related to AFNOR group’s dual operations as a standardisation body as well as a certification firm, and its use of the certification logo “NF” (“norme française”, or “French Standard”). Combined, these circumstances may unfairly benefit AFNOR over its competitors: the Autorité invites public authorities and AFNOR to adopt measures aimed at addressing the advantages derived by AFNOR and its partners from this confusion.
Finally, the Autorité’s opinion focuses on the situation in the construction sector, in which quasi-standards which have not undergone the same validation process as standards are prevalent. Moreover, technical evaluations are de facto required by insurers and project managers in the absence of standards or quasi-standards: these are costly, provided exclusively by a specialised administrative commission, and tend to overreach their original purpose (certifying innovative products or processes) by being implemented, in particular, with regard to products which have already been on the market for a long time. The Autorité thus calls for the construction sector to apply common standardisation processes and to progressively phase out quasi-standards, to limit technical evaluations to their original purpose and to open the market for technical evaluations to accredited certification firms.
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