Massachusetts: thumbs up for lock-in

While FSFE was busy holding its 2007 general assembly in Brussels, Belgium, the world kept spinning. In this case backwards, unfortunately. After the state of Massachusetts had become famous for its clear-sighted move towards Open Standards in general and the Open Document Format (ODF) in particular, recent news is that state officials now plan to go back to accepting vendor lock-in.

There are various reports on the issue, including Andy Updegrove’s blog and Groklaw, which has a cleaned up and highlighted version of the definitions of the Massachusetts’ government "Designation of Standards/Specifications as Enterprise Standards."

Since the Massachusetts state officials correctly identified MS-OOXML as a proprietary, vendor-specific format, they introduced another category on top of Open Standards: Enterprise Standards, which are being defined as either Open Standards and/or "de-facto industry standards," with a reference to this Wikipedia article that is ironically marked "This article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia’s quality standards."

As pointed out during the 2006 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Athens, "de-facto standards" means that one player has become so dominant that its proprietary format seems to be used everywhere. It boils down to a euphemism for monopoly.

Since standards are about allowing competition on the merits between different vendors, such "de-facto standards" are therefore not only no standards, they are in fact quite regularly the opposite of standards.

So what the Massachusetts government really says is that it is okay to be locked into monopolistic software and data formats, that governments should help convicted monopolists to perpetuate their stranglehold over the local population, and that freedom of competition is nothing a government should be concerned about.

That sounds quite different to what I understood the role of a government to be. It also contradicts previously declared policy, like the statements of September 2005 by Eric Kriss, Secretary of Administration & Finance for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts:

"What we’ve backed away from at this point is the use of a proprietary standard and we want standards that are published and free of legal encumbrances, and we don’t want two standards."

But maybe the current local administration is simply afraid to make the same experience that Peter Quinn had to go through in November 2005. In case you don’t remember, here is a wrap-up from that has all the typical elements of political drama: A monopolist lobbying massively for its interests, a CIO that stands up for the interests of the public against the monopolist, and a public smear campaign for which the monopolist neither denies nor confirms its involvement that ends with the resignation of the CIO who dared to oppose their interest.

Seen in this light, the latest news appear to be the continuation of the saga with the new CIO now handing Microsoft a carte blanche for whatever proprietary format they wish to force upon the people in Massachusetts through the state government.

It sounds like this might be a case for the new Lawrence Lessig.

But we cannot hope for any single person to fix all problems for us. All of this makes it even more important to raise the public awareness for standardisation issues, because data lock-in causes software lock-in, and that lock-in has become the most severe problem for migration to Free Software.

We need public attention for these issues. Public scrutiny is the only widely available countermeasure. Without the public pressure there will be no counterweight to the industrial and financial power of the monopolist.

The most important issue in this area right now is the attempt of Microsoft to get its MS-OOXML format rubber-stamped as an ISO standard. While this is not exactly the same as an Open Standard, that difference is theoretical only, as most governments have policies of accepting ISO standards.

So please take a look at the Six questions to national standardisation bodies and help us spread the word

which you can do by inserting this HTML code into your web page:

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About Georg Greve

Georg Greve is a technologist and entrepreneur. Background as a software developer and physicist. Head of product development and Chairman at Vereign AG. Founding president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE). Previously president and CEO at Kolab Systems AG, a Swiss Open Source ISV. In 2009 Georg was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon by the Federal Republic of Germany for his contributions to Open Source and Open Standards.
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