Corporate perk or monopolist bribery?

Staffers in the European Parliament are facing a challenge to their ethics. A company is offering all of them a gift which could not only compromise their independence, but also get them in hot water for copyright infringement. The people working at the European Parliament now need to make a choice: Leave the gift on the table and earn the respect of the citizens they’re working for, or compromise on ethics.

The company in question is Microsoft, and the gift is a bunch of proprietary programs. Through the Parliament’s administration, Microsoft is offering staffers (though probably not MEPs) gratis licenses to Microsoft Office, Project (a project management software) and Visio (a diagramming tool). This happens under the so-called “Home Use Program“.

Such programs are a fairly standard part of Microsoft’s contracts with large organisations. But while private companies are of course free to make their own choices about the perks they offer to their workers, political institutions like the European Parliament are bound to higher standards. There are several serious problems with this program.

(All this is before we even start to talk about the fact that the European institutions haven’t run a competitive bidding process for Microsoft products in 20 years; or that the Parliament which represents us all has no business promoting a dominant company’s market power.)

Conflict of interest

The most obvious problem is that the parliament’s staff are working on regulations that govern the very business that is now making a gift to them. That’s a clear conflict of interest which can’t be explained away.

You might say “well, as long as it’s just the staffers accepting gifts, not the MEPs, then that’s ok” – but you’d be very wrong. On my frequent visits to the Parliament, I sometimes meet with MEPs. But I always meet with staffers. They’re the ones who make the wheels turn. They’re the ones who do all the legwork, and they control access to the MEPs.

It’s tempting to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher: “If you want something said, ask an MEP. If you want something done, ask a staffer.” Staffers have real influence. It may not be illegal to give them gifts, but it’s definitely not ethical.

(Many staffers know this. On my last visit to Brussels, I went to lunch with one of them. We had a bag of fries and a couple of soft drinks. He wouldn’t even let me pick up the tab for the drinks. That’s how it should be.)

Systematic copyright infringement in the making

Shouldn’t the EP’s staff have the possibility to use the same software at home as they do at work? The hours in the EP are long, the pressure is huge, and sometimes work just needs to get done on a private computer. So, shouldn’t staffers have the necessary tools available on their home computers?

Sure. But that’s not how the Home Use Program works:

2.6. Types of use

Entitlement to the Standard HUP is limited to the following types of use:

  • Private use by the staff member concerned and his/her close family.

That couldn’t be clearer. Write a letter to your grandma on that computer: Fine. Prepare a presentation for work: Congratulations, you’ve breached the license, so you’re now violating copyright. (Though I bet that this is one user group that the BSA would hesitate to audit.) Staffers who accept this gift set themselves up for copyright violations.

If the EP really cares about letting staffers work from home, or from their private laptops; and if the EP really cares about its independence; then the administration should initiate a move to Free Software tools. This would make both ethical and licensing issues go away. European citizens could be more confident that those working for them in the Parliament are not beholden to corporate interests. And staffers would be safe in the knowledge that they won’t get in trouble for merely doing their job.

MEPs, it’s your turn

MEPs who want to keep their hands clean should now tell their staff, and the staff in their groups, not to accept the poisoned gift of Microsoft’s Home Use Program. They should push the administration into making available Free Software tools that staffers can use to do their work, and urge the Parliament itself to migrate to Free Software.

There’s the European Parliament Free Software User Group (EPFSUG) that can help with this. They’re always happy for  members from within the Parliament, and for outside supporters. If you want to help, please join this group and get active.