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Open standards: UK dithers over royalty question

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Prime Minister David Cameron - Reform - backwards.pngUK and Portugal are both about to decree a list of open standards that must be used in all public computer systems. But while the UK is still trying to decide what an open standard is, Portugal has already passed a definition into law.

The UK has been paralysed by disagreement over the matter. The crux has been whether an open standard should permit royalty payments - whether an open standard should be both free as in speech and free as in beer.

Portugal answered the question by fudging it. The British Standards Institution, backed by the International Standards Organisation (ISO), has been pressing the UK to do the same. If it gets its way it would force the coalition government into a damaging reversal.

BSI has been in a face-off with Cabinet Office over its definition of open standards since May. They met last Tuesday. But neither twitched. The problem remains unresolved, even after the publication Friday of a progress report on Cabinet Office's ICT Strategy.

Cabinet Office can't back down without either conceding defeat or admitting it made a dreadful mistake. It made the UK definition of an open standard official in February. Open standards became the keystone of its ICT Strategy in March. They have long been the fulcrum of Prime Minister David Cameron's rhetoric on government IT failures and the Big Society.

Crisis

But it poses an existential crisis for BSI. It lives off money it makes selling access to standards specifications. It supports companies who want to claim royalties from people who need to interoperate with their devices. It can't back down without a game-changing modification of its business model.

Their differences seem irreconcilable. Then late last week, BSI took an interest in Portugal's Open Standards Act, which passed with cross-party support in May. BSI thinks Portugal might show a way out. Don't count on it.

Portugal's approach appeals to standards traditionalists and the software patent lobby because it is vague. It is vague enough not to offend those who don't want open standards, though that does depend on your definition of an open standard.

Portuguese flag.pngBSI thinks an open standard is what Portugal's Open Standards Act says it is: something formulated through an open process, described in a specification that is freely available, comprised only of parts that are also freely available and for which intellectual property rights are made available to the state "fully, irrevocably and irreversibly", with no restrictions to its implementation.

Free, in other words as in speech. But not as in beer. It introduced no explicit prohibition on royalties.

Sand in the oyster

Open Forum Europe, an industry group campaigning for open source software and open standards, said last week this was "one of the most enlightened laws of its kind in Europe".

Portugal does claim to favour royalty-free standards. But its law leaves a lot to the imagination - and to the discretion of those civil servants responsible for implementing it.

Gonçalo Caseiro - AMA.pngGonçalo Caseiro, board director of Portugal's Agency for Administrative Modernisation (AMA) with responsibility for implementing the Open Standards Act, told Computer Weekly the government's official preference is for royalty-free standards.

His office has discretion over what standards are officially deemed open standards and, like the UK, is drawing up an official list of them.

"The standards we are choosing now are 99 per cent royalty-free," he told Computer Weekly.

He also has discretion over an exception clause. If a public body thinks it has no choice but to use a standard deemed non-open under Portuguese law, it can ask Caseiro for permission to use it. He will err on the side of open.

Yet Portugal's law is "enlightened" only as long as Caseiro is himself. His administration's preference for royalty-free standards may change.

Then it will become apparent that Portugal's definition has been circumscribed by monopolistic interests. This is tragic from the point of view governments assumed when formulating these rules: that they were pulling down barriers software suppliers build with proprietary standards in technology markets.

European policy initiatives have conjured an image in which trade barriers such as import tariffs become a metaphor for royalties on standards. They say mandating open standards will save public money, and promote innovation and competition; and then fail to mandate open standards. Portugal's definition appears no more "enlightened" than that implemented in the most recent version of the European Interoperability Framework (EIF), the lowest common denominator set last year in Brussels.

Royalty-free caveats

One of the most progressive examples of this policy is to be found not in Portugal but the UK: in the bold definition Cabinet Office sent to procurement officers across the entire public sector in February.

The UK said open standards must be royalty-free. It was, as good as damn it, a clean statement of definition.

Portugal compromised its definition with caveats to placate those seeking to claim royalties on standards. An open standard could be encumbered with royalty claims.

The UK saved its caveats for a separate clause concerned only with rules of implementation: open standards would be used "wherever possible", it said. Standards encumbered by royalties might in other words be permitted in public systems if there were no choice. But those standards would not be deemed open by the UK definition.

Computer Weekly understands BSI liked Portugal's exception clause. If the UK clarified the loose exception built into its "wherever possible" caveat, BSI might see a way forward.

Tim Berners-Lee.pngBut it would not be satisfied. Portugal's definition has given BSI hope that UK's definition might also encompass those standards encumbered with royalty claims - charged at the "reasonable" rate determined by RAND patent terms, as they were explicitly under EIF. BSI wants royalties written into the UK definition explicitly.

Cabinet Office seems to have got itself in a twist. The issue is so much simpler when seen from the perspective of the source of its enlightenment, Sir Tim Berners-Lee's World-Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

New and old testaments

W3C attributes the Web's success to Berners-Lee's making his intellectual property rights to the Web royalty-free in 1993. It demands members sign away royalties if they want to contribute to its standards. Royalties, says its promotional office, place too great burden on a standard.

This is what European governments had in mind when they started talking about a freely interoperable market of public sector computer systems and getting on the open standards bandwagon.

Things are not so simple when you delve into the nuts and bolts of the internet. But nearly. The Internet Engineering Task Force, the forum where internet standards are agreed, has no hard and fast rule on royalties.

Jorge Contreras - IETF and ISOC - legal council.pngJorge Contreras, IETF attorney, told Computer Weekly it had instead a strong royalty-free culture.

Its contributors were mainly hardware suppliers with strong traditional interest in patents. It was moreover fifteen years old. It's processes were established with different parameters than the naturally less encumbered software preoccupations of the W3C. They were well established, and not likely to change, said Contreras. It nevertheless required companies contributing to internet standards disclosed their terms.

"If engineers are uncomfortable about the terms they will design around it. Companies who don't want their patent designed around will make it royalty-free," said Contreras.

Fudge

The Internet Society (ISOC), the IETF's incorporated avatar, summed this policy up at last month's Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi. It was similar to Portugal's fudge.

Internet standards would be freely accessible. Specifications would be available without fee or restriction. It would be "possible" for standards to be implemented royalty-free.

But it is, for the IETF, a statement of reality. "Open standards mean a great deal to the IETF. The approach they take to IPR is felt to be the most constructive and the most realistic solution, given all the competing pressures," said Matthew Ford, ISOC technology programme manager.

ISOC does not have a firm grip on which of the IETF's 6,000 Requests for Comment (official forum notices) describe standards encumbered with royalties. Nor if the internet relies on any of those in its fundamentals - whether, that is, the internet is encumbered, or whether it is as pure an enlightened public space as is imagined popularly and in government policy. (The information is there for anyone who wants to trawl for it).

Some hardware standards consortia do adopt explicit royalty-free policies. It is becoming more common, apparently. The Wireless Gigabit Alliance is a recent example. (It had its first plugfest, where members demonstrated pre-release hardware implementations for interoperability under WiGig specifications, on Monday).

Ali Sadri, WiGig Alliance president and Intel's director of 60 GHz standards, said Intel helped found the consortium with the intention of encouraging industry-wide adoption of a royalty-free approach to standards, to plug the drain patent lawsuits had become on innovation.

Ali Sadri - Wireless Gigabit Alliance.png"When there's no concern for IP then the technology will be developed to the best because contributions will be by their quality rather than the [number of] votes a company has to push its own IP into a standard," said Sadri.

"I think Intel is using us as a guinea pig. I have heard they are re-using our policies in other consortia as well," he said.

Bulimic standards institution

The example of these IT consortia should intensify BSI's existential crisis (though only in relation to its IT work, which is insignificant, as we shall see).

A comparison provides useful context for UK policy.

The consortia are typically not-for-profit and often cover their administration costs by charging membership fees to companies that want to contribute to standards. They distribute standards at the "zero or low cost" rates preferred by Cabinet Office and challenged by BSI.

W3C for example doesn't charge implementers of its standards. They are strictly royalty-free. Though it charges corporate contributors, it invites hundreds of experts to develop standards without paying a contributors' fee. It charges only those with a financial interest in shaping the market in their image.

BSI Group claims to be "not-for-profit" on the basis that any money it earns is invested back in the business. It is nevertheless a £235m business dedicated to "growth through acquisition".

BSI Logo.pngIt earns over half its income from certifying companies under things like environmental and safety standards. It has an £18m training business and a £34m testing business. Companies can contribute to its standards free-of-charge. But it charges for access to its specifications. In 2010 it made £46m from the sale of access to 55,000 standards at up to £2,000-a-pop for everything from zoom lenses to food packaging and the .pdf document format.

In 2010 it launched One-BSI, its "platform for accelerated growth". This would involved cross-selling its services. It would sell a standard specification to a customer, then sell training to implement the standard, then charge them for certification under the standard and for software to manage the process.

UKAS Quality Management logo.pngThe consortia have elaborate rules for preventing royalty claimants hijacking their standards. WiGig has made some attempts to outwit patent trolls. Royalties would raise the costs to anyone seeking to implement their standards; these would then from their point of view not be open.

BSI earned £12m from its own royalties and copyrights in 2010. Its gross margin was 50 per cent. It made a £20m Operating profit and generated £35m in cash. It spent £9m on acquisitions of competing certification bodies.

(Big-heads vs. bell-ends)

The 111-year-old BSI is undoubtedly a great British Institution. It's kite-mark, introduced in 1903, may be the only insignia of Britain's imperial age with its reputation still intact. It's a certified international super-brand. But its profit motive and strategy of acquisitive growth raises a question about its opposition to UK IT policy.

The conflict between the old and new standards worlds has been playing out between BSI and W3C as well, though neither might describe it that way.

Governments typically sanction only standards certified by ISO and its national outlets (such as BSI). These bodies have not typically recognised standards developed by consortia like W3C and IETF. Now governments are making more powerful decrees on IT standards, the consortia need approval by ISO and co. The standards bodies meanwhile need to sanction the consortia to stay relevant.

W3C thus submitted its first suite of standards (for Web services) for certification by ISO last month. The terms are royalty-free. IETF is meanwhile waiting for a European Commission edict on consortium standards. Internet standards are not officially sanctioned in Europe. The Cabinet Office open standards definition gave equal weight to standards developed by standards bodies and industry consortia. But it is not yet official.

As Contreras said, engineers tend to work around contributions encumbered with royalties. W3C has perhaps been working round the standards bodies even as it signs licensing deals with them.

It launched a "community process" in August, providing free facilities for a preliminary standards process open to all without charge. The terms are royalty-free.

W3C says it is popular among vertical industry groups for whom internet standards have become important but would not normally have a reason to contribute to the W3C process. BSI may have come across a form of competition it can't acquire.

ISO-compliant world political map.pngSome in the UK have meanwhile grown fearful that the open data movement also championed by Berners-Lee (and adopted by Cabinet Office) will be undermined by profiteers at the Open Data Corporation, which has been incorporated like BSI by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the arm of government that has traditionally dealt with standards.

Bristol Council open source: the allegations in full

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Bristol City Council's failure to deliver on its open source strategy is beginning to make the coalition government's manifesto commitment on open source look incontinent.

The council's own open source strategy is looking ineffectual. Bristol Council cabinet committed to an open source infrastructure a year ago - as long as it was doable. It ordered a pilot but that was discredited by an allegation that it had been fixed. Now the council has refused to release the suspect pilot reports under Freedom of Information, it is time to look at those allegations in full.

Mark Taylor, CEO of Sirius, told MPs in May how, left to establishment suppliers Capgemini and Computacenter, the open source strategy got caught in a thicket of indifference and vested interests.

Bristol set an original deadline for its open source strategy to be costed and risked by November 2010. They told Capgemini to get on with it, said Taylor, but Capgemini did nothing. Bristol told Capg to work with Sirius, who were experienced implementing open source infrastructures for companies like SpecSavers. They ignored Surius, said Taylor in a letter to MPs on the Parliamentary Administration Select Committee (PASC).

The council meanwhile tendered for an open source infrastructure using the £6bn Buying Solutions Framework for Commodity IT Hardware and Software (CHITS). Thus it would be ready to roll when the pilot produced its recommendations.

Five large CHITS suppliers bid for the work: Computacenter, Fujitsu Services, Insight Direct, Softcat and SCC. Sirius complained it was forbidden from bidding for the work because it wasn't on CHITS, a list dominated by the UK's largest infrastructure suppliers. Sirius teamed up as Computacenter's open source advisors and the pair won the business. But things then took a turn for the worst, said Taylor's letter.

Ostracized

"ComputerCenter (sic) began the project by having a series of meetings with Bristol City Council without inviting Sirius or even mentioning that the meetings had occurred.

"Sirius first met with the Council on 17th January at a meeting billed by ComputerCenter as the 'kick off'. On the same day we were included on an email from ComputerCenter's Project Manager referring to earlier meetings and assuming all recommendations to the Council would be proprietary software as usual," said the letter.

From the very start of the work in January, Sirius was already writing formal letters of complaint to Bristol over Computacenter's bias for the proprietary software vendors with which it had a business relationship and against open source.

This bias was a hot topic in Whitehall. Within a month, the Cabinet Office called the UK's systems integrators in for a telling off: why had they been ignoring government requests for open source systems for two years?

Capgemini had not even started the pilot, said Taylor's letter. It had been five months.

So Bristol asked Computacenter and Sirius to do the pilot themselves before implementing its findings. What transpired so frustrated Taylor that his protests put him at loggerheads with Computacenter and had him kicked off the programme.

Taylor complained that Computacenter - one of Microsoft's largest UK resellers - had skewed the pilot's parameters so it came out in favour of Microsoft. Implicit in this allegation was the assumption that Computacenter's profit margins relied on the supply and servicing of proprietary software systems, that these systems raise a relatively high income from their monopoly rents and that an industry established on this model had no interest in alternatives.

Bias

It went right to the heart of the commitment written into the government's coalition agreement to "create a level playing field for open source". The industry was founded by companies like Computacenter on proprietary software by publishers like Microsoft and its business model had become thus fossilised. The open source model was disruptive. The proprietary software industry wasn't going to let it in, no matter how discredited it had become for its cost, waste and failure.

"ComputerCenter showed a clear and persistent bias towards proprietary (invariably Microsoft) software," said Taylor's letter to MPs.

ComputaCenter turned the pilot into "an enormous and costly paper-based check-box exercise" that dragged on for months longer, he said.

But here was the key allegation of bias: Taylor said Computacenter had made the "starting point" of its pilot, "a comparison between how well a Microsoft software stack and an Open Source software stack compared with a Microsoft software feature set". On those terms, nothing could win but Microsoft, not even the largely Novell-based infrastructure the council was already using.

Computacenter in addition "lobbied Bristol to buy a proprietary, not an open source infrastructure. Taylor said Computacenter made him sign a contract forbidding him direct contact with Bristol, the council that had turned his 2010 consulting advice into an ICT strategy championed in person by council leader Barbara Janke.

He was excluded from meetings about the pilot and not informed of others. He relied on Councillor Mark Wright, who authored the council's ICT strategy, to inform him when meetings were happening. He fought against Computacenter's insistence that the council should use proprietary software instead of open source alternatives.

In May, Computacenter submitted a recommendation that, said Taylor, the council use "an essentially entirely proprietary Microsoft stack". Taylor complained and his partnership with Computacenter collapsed.

Computacenter claims the allegations are "potentially libellous" and refuses to discuss them, perhaps highlighting one of the most important aspects of this episode - the question of the government's transparency agenda, as discussed elsewhere.

But the episode raises concerns also about the government's SME-led innovation policy, something else championed by Bristol's "Digital City" strategy. Ultimately, both issues are indicators of the state of the industry, fed as it is by school leavers whose computer education consists of learning to operate Microsoft applications.

As Microsoft celebrates the 30th anniversary of the IBM PC on which it piggy-backed to power it is worth reflecting on how it was, famously, the IBM platform's openness that made it such a success. If anyone cares also to reflect on how the 30-year old industry might benefit from reform, they might find a lack of transparency will work to the detriment of them and everyone else.

A message from Bill Gates: thank you Mr Cameron

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Thumbnail image for David Cameron Big Issue Front Cover.pngA message of thanks from Bill Gates*.

People often ask me what its like being the richest man in the world.

Let me tell you, I always say, It's tough.

You have to spend a lot of time feeding starving children to stop people asking questions about how much money you have. And then you have to put up with dupes like Gordon Brown and David Cameron, our Microsoft sales representatives in Little Old England.

To be fair to Gordon, he turned into one of our best sales people. But Cameron got off to a really bad start. That imbecile made open source software an election promise. And now he can't think of a way to make up for it.

Gordon already gave me a Knighthood and a protectorate for my software monopoly. That's what Cameron said to me. He said, "But Bill, what do you give a man who's already got everything you can give?"

I said he could patch up my PR. So he gave me this spread in The Big Issue, a magazine for bums.

It was genius. You see its not just about PR nowadays. It's about information supremacy. That means you've gotta keep the bums happy.

Now that reminds me of something that happened recently when my motorcade got stuck in a road block. I hate it when that happens. You always get some schmo hassling you. This time it was some stinking squeegee. My security guards were a bit slow getting to him and he got his squeegee in my window before I had a chance to wind it up.

I was terrified. But he said something to me that got me to thinking.

He said, "Bill, we aint all that different you and me. I was born just like you. I worked sweat, blood and tears all my life. Hell, I made some mistakes. But I did some good things. And I gave it all I had, Bill, just like you. And now I'm gonna die, just like you'll die too one day.

"And you know what?," he said.

He said, "I aint got a pot to piss in."

He said, "I aint even got me enough money to get a cab ride. Now why is that Bill? You should give me a ride in your car, Bill. It's just as much my car as yours. I own a little bit of that car, Bill. You didn't know that, did you, Bill?"

And then he hit me with this line. He said, "You didn't know that I used to be a window cleaner, did you Bill? And I bet you didn't know that I used to wash your windows, Bill. Up at your fancy mansion in Seattle? Did you know that, Bill? Did you know that I used to wash your freekin' windows, Bill?

As my security guards were taking him down, he shouted: "I hope you enjoyed the view, man! I hope you enjoyed the view outta your freakin' windows!"

I was shaken, as you can imagine. But it got me to thinking. I thought, for crying out loud - this moron doesn't even know that Windows is a proper noun.

But it got me to thinking something else too. It got me to thinking that perhaps there was something I could do to make the world a better place.

You see, I do remember this bum cleaning my Windows. I remember taking in the view from my counting room across Lake Washington, as I often do. And I remember being interrupted by this stinking squeegee who was cleaning my Windows. And I remember thinking maybe I could make some automatic cleaning device so you didn't have to pay some stinking squeegee who spoiled your view and probably thought it gave him some sort of rights or something just because he cleaned your freaking Windows.

But even if you get rid of the bums, you've still got to patronize them. And nobody does that better than David Cameron.

"We'll give you hand up, not a hand out", Cameron told the bum's at The Big Issue. And that's genius because it makes them feel guilty for being losers and takes the heat off us for hogging all the money. Because we can't help being so clever that we get to keep all the money. And its not fair when stinking squeegee loser bums think they've got some right over it.

But as my good wife Melinda always says, just because some moron refuses to accept they're inferior, you shouldn't let them get you down. You've got to keep them in their place - but be nice about it. And she's right. Because they don't know how lucky they are that I'm not, like, one of those Nazi master race types.

I'm like one of those benevolent master race types. I won't exterminate someone if they're irritating me. I'll give them a few dollars to get off my back.

Because as long as they've got a few more dollars today and the promise of a few more dollars tomorrow, they're less likely to get jealous and start throwing stones at people like me, sitting on top of the tree.

That's what happens when you're Bill Gates. People get jealous. But I can't help being great. Just like they can't help being losers.

And that's why I want to thank Cameron for doing a good PR job for me. Because he made me feel better about myself even while he made me feel better than everyone else.

Bill Big Issue 1.pngBill Big Issue 2.png


* As imagined by Mark Ballard




Cabinet Office refuses disclosure of IDv2.0 plans

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So much for the "astonishing speed" with which the Prime Minister David Cameron and his Deputy Nick Clegg said technology was "spreading information" and "decentralising power" when they launched their transparency programme in May 2010. They were going to strengthen the FOI Act. What is really astonishing is just just how antiquated the FOI act still is.

The FOI Act allows public bodies to refuse requests that may take more than £600 of someone's time to answer. That's a lot of time and since most things are stored electronically nowadays, it's a lame excuse.

That doesn't stop public bodies from refusing FOI requests on the excuse it would take them too long to answer. It's sometimes simply inconvenient for departments to produce requested information. A case in point is Computer Weekly's request for information about the Cabinet Office's next generation ID Scheme, which is already shaping up to be as controversial as New Labours' ID Scheme ever was.

When your humble correspondent makes a request that may on the face of it seem like a lot of work, he calls on a widely ignored power of the FOI Act to avoid the sort of situation that usually occurs: where the department responds to the request a month later with a terse refusal on the grounds that it would take too long to answer it.

That power is the "Duty to provide advice and assistance" to which public bodies are held accountable under Section 16 of the FOI Act.

The Act describes the duty as follows: "It shall be the duty of a public authority to provide advice and assistance, so far as it would be reasonable to expect the authority to do so, to persons who propose to make, or have made, requests for information to it."

Whenever your correspondent has appealed for help under this FOI provision, it has always been to seek advice about formulating a reasonable request for information and not one that is likely to be rejected because it would cost too much answer.

This appeal is always ignored

Punch card.pngAs it was when Computer Weekly's asked Cabinet Office for details of its dealings with industry in respect of its next generation ID Scheme.

CW asked for details of report authors, meeting minutes, board members, distribution lists and schedules relating to its draft plans. It's a fair variety of information, but should be readily available in electronic form.

So, we said to the Cabinet Office, please advise us how much of this information we can request without being unreasonable: the last thing we want is for you to come back weeks later only to say you won't give the information because the request is unreasonable.

And what did the Cabinet Office do? It came back weeks later and said you can't have the information because the request is unreasonable.

We suspect the Cabinet Office is telling porkies and that its problem is not that the request was unreasonable but that it was inconvenient. It would have detailed the full extent of industry's part in formulating the ConDem government's next generation ID scheme.

As has been shown here, Freedom of Information is often a misnomer. The system operates to the advantage of departments that want to block the publication of information. They continue to do so in betrayal of the Cabinet Office's own transparency program, which purports to aspire to improve government decisions by increasing public participation in them.

Far from being an instrument of transparency for the networked age, FOIs are like using punch card computers in the 1970s.

Latest technology allows Cabinet Office to answer FOIs with astonishing speed.pngWhen you wanted to make a query of a mainframe computer system held by those few with power and money to have mainframe computer systems, you would have to punch out a card with your query coded in a way that could be input by its operators. The card would get sent off and you'd get a response weeks later. If you'd made a mistake, you'd have to go through the whole rigmarole again. That's what the ConDem's mean by transparency. It's quite astonishing!

How Gov aimed to exploit personal data trade

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The £3bn trade in tip-offs about people caught in car accidents has exposed the seedy side of the personal data market. Seedier still are draft government plans to cash in on this bonanza when it ought to be sticking to the Tory manifesto promise to give people a right to call the shots over their own personal data.

Plans to replace Labour's ID scheme with a private sector system of identity assurance, which Computer Weekly revealed Cabinet Office had floated to industry in April, have led inevitably to a proposal for the private sector to become more active as custodians of people's personal data as well. This is already happening to a large extent but, much to people's dismay, the private sector seems less interested in being custodian than exploiter.

In the Cabinet Office plan, British citizens would be represented by electronic identity and attribute agents (attribute being jargon for an item of personal data) in a "marketplace in trusted data provision."

"The 'trusted attribute service' economy is based on the exchange of attributes (aka claims) which are data items from a trusted source relating to an authenticated individual," said the Cabinet Office draft technical blueprint.

"They also provide a mechanism for third parties to expose such data, and operate in a market for that service," it said.

It went on to say how government could cash in on the billions already being made in the market for personal data. The idea was that people build a network of trusted relationships online and personal data supplied from members of their network can be assembled in combinations of ever-greater numbers of attributes to meet higher and higher levels of security clearance. Companies providing that data could charge for it, like police forces and insurance companies have been charging ambulance chasers for tip-offs when people are caught in a car accident.

"Government attribute providers" would under the Cabinet Office plan exist in all major government departments and feed personal data about the citizens in their charge to private sector identity and attribute agents.

"Possible examples" of data the government could trade included "nationality", the "right to work", and verification of national insurance and driving licence numbers.

"The government could potentially charge the private sector for this service," said the draft plan.

That might simply involve verification of data: whether someone is a benefit claimant or a disqualified director, or a confirmation of their nationality. In the virtual world, a yes/no answer is indistinguishable from the actual transmission of a string of data such as: "unemployed, disqualified director, from Jamaica".

These were draft plans presented for discussion. Though it is not unknown for the government to trade in people's data. DWP had for example been giving BT access to its national insurance database under arrangements that have not been disclosed.

The Cabinet Office Identity Assurance Scheme could not rely on a private sector ID market if it did not engage in actual exchange of personal data with private sector providers. The draft plan proposes people should have control over the trade in their data. But it is tempered by a warning that this may not always be possible.

That, as has been demonstrated by the example of the insurance scam, is the element of the coalition government's private sector ID scheme set to match in dread Labour's Big Brother: a market in which people's "attributes" are traded in such a frenzy that it inflates prices, leading people to be fleeced simply for being "known", pestered by vultures like ambulance chasers, and with who knows what other unforeseen consequences.

An answer to this problem has been proposed by the personal data model government has piloted at Brent and other councils, and with which the DWP and Cabinet Office have been closely involved.

That is the Mydex model, in which people are given the means to control their own personal data in their own personal agent: deciding who gets to see it, who gets to use it and on what terms. It would even give people the means to flog their own data, making them the primary agents in any market.

If that sounds too good to be true, its because the market is already getting carried away with itself. Banks are getting in on the act, as if early evidence hasn't already shown how the personal data market can inflate to the detriment of ordinary people without their help.

The government needs to act quickly to carry its pre-election promises on civil liberties to their logical conclusion. That does not mean making a song and dance about dismantling Labour's ID scheme only to throw everyone's identities to the dogs in the private sector. That means ensuring people have the means to control their own personal data, wherever and however it is held.

UK shakes dust off open source policy

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Liam Maxwell jazz hands.pngIf it looked like UK open source policy, just recently exhumed, had already been swept back under the same carpet it has been kept under since it was first launched two and a half years ago, the announcement yesterday that Liam Maxwell had acquired responsibility for it with a Cabinet Office portfolio did surprisingly little to improve its mien.

It is then just as well Cabinet Office is about to announce long-overdue progress in its cause of creating a level-playing field for open source software. Because the new appointment will need all the help he can get.

No matter that Maxwell is head of IT and has taught at Eton, the toff school that groomed Prime Minister David Cameron for power. Whoopee-do that he wrote Tory Tech Policy and the open source strategy now being executed by the Cabinet Office. Yawn, 'scuse me, but it is of little significance that he did all this simultaneously and even as he held the ICT portfolio at Windsor & Maidenhead Borough Council, where he waved a shitty stick at Microsoft and championed open standards. He might appear like superman. But you'd have to think twice about it since he agreed to take this Cabinet Office job.

Because Maxwell's only going to be Cabinet Office Director of ICT Futures for 11 months. It was a full time job. Yet he's taken it on secondment with no explanation. As one interested observer put it, that gives him about a 0.00001 per cent chance of getting anything done.

Think about it, said this observer. He turns up at his allotted desk on 1 September. He learns where the toilets are and that sort of thing. That will take him till December. He'll then produce a report and call some meetings. But what will Sir Humphrey and all the other old goats in the civil service make of him?

"These are hardened civil servants who wait for ministers to go by, and for governments to change," said said observer. If they know he's only going to be there for 11 months, will they deign to jump when he says so?

Then Maxwell is said to be in possession of intelligence that the same attitude has been adopted by the Boo Hissstems Integrators who control the public sector ICT oligopoly.

Maxwell's assigned team have already been asking nicely would the integrators please do more open source software, on which they could less likely fleece government with oligopoly rents. Maxwell is said to be in possession of a report in which a Boo Hissstems integrator says, don't worry about all this open source lark, it'll blow over: just hang tight till this lot get voted out of government.

Some fringe elements in the civil service may have acquired outlandish ideas about getting things done since they started entertaining members of the Agile systems development cult, but they've got to be wearing some pretty loud disco trousers if they think Maxwell will get their agenda pushed through in just 11 months.

On top of open source he's been charged with making government the sort of place that gets things done. He might do that first. Then he's been asked to implement open standards policy, which was recently cut back, reform procurement for the sake of SMEs, and advise on using new technology.

A catty observer might ask why a man of Maxwell's talents wasn't given a permanent job. But the clue might be in the title. A "director of ICT futures", is like any futurologist, the sort of chap you put in a dicky bow and roll out to do slots on the radio about kerrazy ideas like floating cars and open source software. Mickey Mouse likes to wear a dicky bow. Maxwell, who's been seconded by Eton, might want to get back to some proper work when he's finished doing jazz hands for open source.

Non-job

The appointment took a vaudeville turn when Cabinet Office announced it yesterday. It had been talking to Maxwell about taking the "director of ICT futures" post since January. Ian Watmore was said to be keen on him. Tory Tech command was practically his brain child anyway. But there was some debate about whether he "could or should take the job", said someone close to the negotiations. It was a matter of some "delicacy" which remains unexplained.

Cabinet Office initially announced he had been appointed "Director of ICT Futures". Then said he wasn't actually going in at director level after all. He was going to be a non-permanent advisor though the job description was precisely the same as the one it had advertised for "Director of ICT Futures".

Whatever his title, many of those SMEs now in his care will be wondering if the Eton boy wonder's temp contract will be handled by Boo-Hissstems integrator Capita like all the other temp contracts it recently took from SMEs with Cabinet Office permission.

Chin job

The Cabinet Office has meanwhile managed after six months of work behind the scenes to establish another talking shop for its ICT policy. The long-promised open source advisory panel will have its articles of incorporation signed off Wednesday.

Computer Weekly was told the wet-ink proposal involves the production of a web site in which government departments can seek advice from "the community" on the acquisition of open source software.

The arrangements were made by the Public Sector Group of industry lobby Open Forum Europe, which in December (some two years after it formed) scored its first significant success by recruiting Cabinet Office operator Qamar Yunus as joint chair. It's membership is notable for its absence of big hitters from the heffing departments of state DWP, HMRC and MOD.

There are also unconfirmed reports Cabinet Office is about to produce the final open source reference stack (a list of approved open source software) on which it first sought advice from "the community" back in February. Verily, at this pace of change old Liam Maxwell could be in and out the Cabinet Office with such agility no one even notices he was there.

Computacenter row threatens blockhead end for open source in Bristol

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IT giant Computacenter has raised the prospect of legal action against a small open source supplier for complaining to Parliament about its "Microsoft bias".

The veiled threat followed a letter sent to MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), in which Mark Taylor, chief executive officer of Sirius, described a project involving Computacenter he said exemplified the the government's declamation of large IT suppliers: that they dominated the market and crowded out competiton.

Computacenter stated on learning of the letter it was seeking "advice" because it was "potentially libellous". It now says making such a statement did not in itself constitute a threat.

That depends on your perspective. Mark Taylor, chief executive of Sirius, which with a £2.3m turnover is about one-thousandth Computacenter's size, was scared stiff when he heard about this. Yet if Computacenter did sue him for being a whistle-blower, it may prove his point.

The Parliamentary committee to which Taylor sent his letter is exploring allegations that companies like Computacenter abuse their market power by punishing small suppliers when they don't keep in line.

The big IT suppliers are so powerful, it is said, they control the vast majority of public sector IT, which is done in their commercial interest. That may count as quid pro quo from supplier's perspective. But when that supplier is part of an oligopoly servicing a monopoly, it is a little unfortunate for anything trying to breathe outside that comfortable little world that has become known as government IT.

This must be most upsetting from Computacenter's point of view too. It has a certain Blue-chip reputation it must present to its customers. Anyone trying to daub the façade with graffiti must be firmly stamped on.

Computacenter has declined to say what offence it has taken with Taylor's letter. It is seriously perturbed, however, at being identified as one of the boo-hissstems integrators that are said to treat SMEs so poorly.

The multitude of winds that have whipped up the current bout of government IT reviews and inquiries (in the name of SMEs, agile, procurement reform, open software, open standards and open markets) threaten an existential crisis for the large suppliers.

Microsoft bias?

Wintel laptop.jpegTake for example the question of whether Computacenter has a Microsoft bias. It's like asking if the Pope is a Catholic.

Computacenter built its business selling "Wintel" computers and infrastructure. When it made 30 employees millionaires overnight on the occasion of its 1998 flotation (link: sic), it was thanks to the Wintel computing boom. It has branched out a little over the years: it now does services too: though mostly on farms of Wintel computers for big corporations. And while it has its customers' interests at heart, it is essentially like a great, huffing bull with Microsoft branded on its balls.

Computacenter's boom years were the late 90s when the corporate mantra was economies of scale. Customers got the economies of its scale by buying thousands of Microsoft computers. Now the market has gone sour and the typical contract has become so large that only Microsoft suppliers can satisfy them because only they are large enough.

Sirius discovered this after writing Bristol City Council's ICT strategy this time last year. Bristol was down with its open source angle and adopted its recommendations. Sirius then couldn't pitch for the work because it wasn't on the official procurement lists. It went in with Computacenter but was shown the door, said Taylor's letter to MPs, when he protested over the Microsoft bias CC had put in Bristol's proof-of-concept open source pilot.

It would be a terrible irony if the project failed because Bristol had no choice but to ask a Microsoft reseller to demonstrate how an alternative to a proprietary infrastructure might be feasible. It would also be shameful for Bristol, a City that that has made the Zeitgeist its identity: multicultural, ecological, collaborative, egalitarian, open. That's what people from Bristol say about their own City. So if not Bristol then where?

If Computacenter's pilot finds against open source, more than seven years of work at Bristol would have been for nothing. Bristol's entire infrastructure would be based on infantilising proprietary technology and its vision of being a Digital City regenerated by a small army of creatives up to their arms in collaborative computer code would be somewhat obscured.

To understand how awful that would be, imagine Bristol's vision being one of municipal authority as bountiful Big Society fount, its computer systems built open and spread like nourishing tributaries throughout the City. Or imagine, conversely, great multinational corporations sat atop the globe like gluttonous octopuses, their proprietary software systems sucking the life and inspiration from the computing generation.

You might detect a little bias there. It's merely one point of view, though one Computacenter is unlikely to plaster over mail outs funded by its next injection of Microsoft marketing development money.

Corporate image

That doesn't mean Computacenter can't get with the programme. But Microsoft and its reseller Computacenter, the model of the noughties corporation, represent the antithesis of the Bristol zeitgeist: monocultural, rapacious, tight-lipped, dog-eat-dog, proprietary.

Granted, Computacenter looks fairly enlightened when viewed from within the retarded world of the City of London. In its last financial results, Computacenter chairman Greg Lock proudly declaimed how the corporation had achieved enlightenment: it had adopted the UK Corpote Governance Code, "not simply because we must do so, but rather because it is the right thing to do."

And bravo. Don't worry that the Code's key principles read like the listing for the soundtrack of Thatcher's Britain: "Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability, Remuneration, Relations with Shareholders".

If a corporation is an organism and the board of directors its brains, the Code is comparable to one of the first great periods of human enlightenment, when prehistoric man first started organising into paternalistic clans governed by power tempered with honour.

It is progress a little in advance of that earlier enlightenment when pre-prehistoric man learned to adulate the heavens. Ug. Heavens: glorious. Me: glorious. You: cower, worm, before my competitive mastery. Though its morality is essentially tribal.

This may explain why Taylor this week accepted a post on an SME board being established by the Cabinet Office to help them tackle the problems they are too scared to air in public. There might be safety under the shadow of reforming minister Francis Maude.

Since Taylor was one of the key players behind both the coalition government's and Bristol's ICT strategies, you would imagine him wily enough to deal with a lumbering corporation like Computacenter on his own. That is assuming Computacenter's Microsoft bias has indeed scuppered Bristol's open source pilot. Both Bristol and Computacenter say the game's not over. Taylor says Computacenter elbowed him out and submitted assessments that had been fixed to favour Microsoft.

After slogging away for 30 years by the rule of Mammon, Computacenter may have just lumbered innocently into the midst of a political thorn bush. It might now look up and see how much is riding on Bristol's pilot. It's failure will mark the failure not just of Bristol's ICT strategy but of Maude's and Taylors.

Computacenter would do well to back up and consider while licking its wounds how the idea of software freedom has taken hold in mainstream politics. If it does anything else it will end up looking like the ignorant box shifter it has long tried so hard not to be. Why not give Bristol what it wants?

500 rogue Gov websites nabbed four years after Varney

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The Cabinet Office has discovered another 500 government websites it needs to shut down as part of the Varney review launched in 2006.

One of the biggest websites for the chop might even be the gargantuan DirectGov itself.

The rogue sites mean it has been one step forward and two steps back for the Government Digital Service, previously called DirectGov after the web portal it managed. The unit was charged with eliminating waste across the public sector web by former HMRC boss Sir David Varney in 2006. But it has found nearly twice as many superfluous websites as it has managed to close.

Sharon Cooper, director of strategy and innovation for the Government Digital Service, told a recent Inside Government conference the unit had achieved Varney's target off shutting all unnecessary public sector websites and subsuming them into DirectGov by March 2011.

It had shut 287 websites by 5pm on 31 March, converging 95 per cent of all public sector information into DirectGov. But it had found another 500 websites that must be axed.

Sharon Cooper - Government Digital Service 3.png"There are still another 500 out there because we found a lot more in the process of trying to shut them down and that work is still going on," said Cooper.

DirectGov, which was transferred from DWP to Cabinet Office on 1 April, had struggled to get some departments to accept its authority.

But its cause was boosted with the publication of Digital Champion Martha Lane-Fox's strategic review of DirectGov last year.

Cooper is now charged with carrying out Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude's order that all government services be made "digital by default", a tall order when so many people were unable to connect to or use the internet.

Cuts by default

The cross-government Cabinet Office Public Sector Employment Relations Committee, a group of Human Resources directors charged with managing civil service job cuts, sanctioned the Digital by Default order in March on the proviso that assistance was given to people who needed help getting online. 

"We are working out how the hell do you do that," said Cooper.

The answer would probably be in the spirit of Varney's recommendation that DirectGov became the primary source of government information. But technology had changed so much the result may be radically different than envisaged in 2006.

Varney Report 2006 Front Cover.pngSo Cooper said the Digital unit would, "like Martha said", have teeth. It would tell all departments what to do on the web. But it was no longer wedded to the idea of "one big monstrous website".

It would set standards and it would monitor departments to see they were complying. It would advise and share best practice. But the Digital unit was still deciding what exactly it was going to tell them to do and how they should do it. 

"One of our big things as we replace the DirectGov infrastructure is to replace that with infrastructure that anyone can use," she said.

"We want to procure a whole cloud-based, future-looking infrastructure rather than the massive enterprise stuff we've had in the past."

DirectGov-less Gov

Just months after clearing out DirectGov's top brass, the new digital unit was even contemplating axing DirectGov portal in a radical revision of Varney's reforms.

"We are thinking, should there be a DirectGov in five years time? Or should there just be a wholesale market-place of open APIs so every transaction is available, so that anybody can use that transaction and embed it in their own service?" said Cooper. "Should there just be a great big asset database on which we can build a version of DirectGov?

Cabinet Office was considering how car insurers might process people's applications for car tax and disabled badges, for example. It was taking the lead from the post-Varney HMRC, which had distributed APIs for PAYE and other systems.

Government Digital Service was still wedded to Varney's vision of government having a "single online presence", said Cooper. It would be demonstrated imminently by a test site called alpha.gov.uk, which was still password protected at the time this article was posted.

Government to end ICT "oligopoly"

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The government has promised to bring down the ICT oligopoly as part of a strategy that may have seismic consequences for the public and private sectors.

The 18 large ICT suppliers that have controlled 80 per cent of Britain's much maligned public sector IT will have the rug pulled from beneath them if the reforms promised in today's Cabinet Office IT Strategy work as envisaged.

Big Ben.pngPolicy makers will be freed from the lead shoes put on them by the lumbering, multi-billion IT contracts that have tied them to the big suppliers and hold political initiative back, the policy claims.  

Open standards will be "imposed" on technology in the public sector, creating a country-wide computing platform that will subvert the misshapen procurement regime by allowing young, innovative firms to merely plug-in to UK.gov.

Such an ecosystem may become a feat of civil engineering to define the early 21st Century: a public work to make monoliths like the National Programme for IT seem like the work of 19th Century engineers.

The reforms will bring far-reaching changes to every corner of the public sector. They will require the civil service to agree common working practices in order for the computer system processes built upon them to be interoperable.

"The government will put an end to the oligopoly of large suppliers that monopolise its ICT provision," declared the strategy.

But government would "move away from large ICT projects that are slow to implement or pose a greater risk of failure" only "where possible". The government is already locked into IT contracts, such as the £8.5bn Aspire deal HMRC has with Capgemini, that preceded the last Parliamentary term and may yet outlive the present government.

The government would nevertheless adopt a "presumption against" IT contracts above £100m, while HMRC got a special mention for a plug and play website into which IT SMEs have been plugging tax data apps.

Open source

The strategy also carried forward a raft of reforms begun under the last government. The coalition would re-use its software systems, instead of buying them anew for different departments.

It would build an "asset register" and a government app store. Senior officials would be made to take more interest in and responsibility for their IT systems so fewer of them turned into hash.

But just as the last government in 2009 promised "a level playing field for open source", and a year later promised the same again. It has now been promised again. Open source would get a level playing field and would be used "where possible".

Both the government may have to step up their campaigning efforts if it wants its next ICT strategy, in 2014, to reflect any serious support it may be have for open source.

The programme of reform would, appropriately enough for one proposing lean and agile development methodologies, only last 24 months.

Any longer would be too long to leave the large ICT suppliers unsupervised.

Doom clouds gather over parliamentary IT hearing

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A couple of the great mandarins of government IT got top billing at the Parliamentary inquiry into computing last week. They set a gloomy scene for the government's forthcoming IT strategy, which CW anticipates will be published on Wednesday.

They were upstaged by a bunch of small town IT directors who chirped on about the information policy principles everybody expects to become formal policy, and which they claim to be adopting already: small, agile, open, interoperable, entrepreneurial.

Goverment CIO Holds Court at the PASC - edit - 22 March 2011.pngIt was tempting to think of this as the Old Guard's last gasp. It was a horrible sight.

Joe Harley, government CIO and chief of IT at the Department for Work and Pensions, and Phil Pavitt, CIO at the megalithic HM Revenue and Customs, lumbered on about how well their multi-billion pound contracts were performing, using PR-approved factoids that ticked all the faddish boxes.

They showed just how deep the IT establishment is dug into these most powerful departments of state and propped up the 10-year, multi-billion pound alliances it has with the large IT suppliers. The government might not have machinery big enough to shift them.

It looked awful for government policy, awful for the open source movement that has driven its reforming bent and awful, paradoxically, for the neo-Labour movement these old boys represent: a lose-lose situation the extent of which is hidden by confidentiality clauses from all but a chosen few.

Big Society ITopia

It had all looked bright and breezy as the Public Administration Select Committee's inquiry into government IT set into its third week.

Three local government IT chiefs cheerily extolled the virtues of an IT ecosystem modeled not on power hierarchies but on the networked society.

Socialization - Solidarity - Humanity.pngTheir ideology makes the Big Society sound desirable as well as possible, if only it wasn't also used as an excuse to slash and burn public services.

The idea is that interoperable computer systems and open data will form a "backbone", or "glue", or "WD40" on which it is possible to imagine civic Britain as the primordial soup, humming with evolutionary potential, bustling with community co-operatives and do-gooding corporations.

This take on the Big Society vision has become so irrefutable it even has Marxist academics praising the health-giving properties of free-forming, quasi-capitalist societies.

That's what Professor David Harvey told BBC's Hard Talk when he published a book on the subject last year.

Homogeneity was losing favour with the left as well as the right. Diverse, decentralised, self-deterministic communities had proven their worth, Harvey told the Beeb's Sarah Montague.

"Utopia is about continuous change," he said. "Human beings are astonishingly creative. Capitalism has got to the point where its not using that any more."

What crippling contradiction it can cause, to be so transported when such ideas are presented by executives from Tory councils among those most zealously making the public service cuts being used to force through these reforms.

While we hear persuasive chatter from the likes of Mark Adams-Wright, chief information officer of Suffolk, the "virtual" county council, and David Wilde, the CIO at Westminster City, the Old Guard lets the side down. The IT establishment hasn't got a reason why. It doesn't have an ideology. It doesn't even have a spiel that can justify its ugly great contracts.

Kelvin Hopkins MP.pngIt's left to PASC members like Kelvin Hopkins, Labour MP for Luton North, to meet these upstarts in debate.

Watkins pelted them: outsourced public services in places like Westminster are supposed to be "wonderful", he said. But they're not.

Then IT suppliers bamboozle public bodies and charge them outrageous fees, he said.

And what about private care homes, he said, which are dreadful despite being propped up with public subsidies?

Universal credit

The Big Society ITerati doesn't have answers to questions like this. Neither did Professor Harvey, funnily enough.

The Old Guard at least has big IT contracts, and we haven't seen the last of them, for all the talk we've heard from Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude.

Most of Universal Credit, the coalition's first gargantuan IT project, was already being shoed into existing contracts with large suppliers without an open competition, the Old Guard told the Committee.

They didn't say why, or how. But Malcolm Whitehouse, group applications director for the DWP said something about how important it was to keep the same people on because they knew the ropes. African dictators are fond of that excuse.

CIO Harley claimed the government had learned its lesson from past IT failures, before trotting out a list of things he was doing to make his multi-billion pound IT contracts more palatable.

The committee heard earlier how 400 benefits systems in local government were serviced by just two or three suppliers.

Storm Clouds.pngBad omen

Socitm has been warning that the large government departments will block the Big Society reforms.

And so it seems the Cabinet Office IT strategy may be forced into a fudge with the very IT oligarchy it has been chipping at for the last six months.

So Pavitt said HMRC liked this idea that government IT systems might be broken up into smaller, interoperable components.

But he said it would be "foolish" to break up HMRC's existing system. It handled £435bn of tax and transacted with the DWP 3bn times-a-year.

It is also locked into a 13-year, £8.5bn contract with Capgemini.

Pavitt trotted out some tired old marketing slogans to shore this Aspire contract up in front of the Committee. It will have cut £1bn from HRMC's IT costs by the time it terminates in 2017, he said. It has even built an open source website.

No matter that the work was only meant to cost £3bn when it was contracted in 2004. Nor that its three year-extension from 2014 is to cost as much as the contract is supposed to have saved over its life.

Nor that HMRC will likely to have no choice but to grant another five-year trigger-extension in 2017. The deal is so uncompetitive HRMC had to pay Capgemini and others nearly £52m to take it on.

It's so uncompetitive HMRC has to build artificial incentives into the contract, as though it were the Department for Health trying to force an NHS trust to mimic the market.

Capgemini logo.pngHush hush

The lions share of the money goes to Capgemini and its two main subcontractors, Accenture and Fujitsu.

HRMC pays Capgemini over £800m-a-year for everything from application development and data centres, to call centres and maintenance.

Another 238 suppliers get a piece of those billions. One must wonder why there aren't more of them. But we don't get to see the numbers.

Even the Cabinet Office's much trumpeted bulk renegotiation of Capgemini's government business is commercial in confidence. Capgemini's executives and major shareholders will have the details. We shall have to trust them and the Whitehall mandarins to ensure what little competition they have is sporting enough.

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