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UK goes royalty-free... but not for COTS

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230px-Moses041.jpgThe UK laid down the law on software standards yesterday, finally fulfilling a policy commitment that has floundered for more than than two and a half years.

The government ordered public bodies to purge their computer systems of proprietary software standards, those data formats and interfaces over which dominant software companies had made property claims established under US patent law.

It decreed that public bodies must instead implement non-proprietary, open standards; under rules it had codified so tightly that it left little room for doubt that it had at last found the courage of its convictions.

Well, almost. The policy didn't appear to apply to "commercial, off-the-shelf software", those ubiquitous, proprietary software packages against which government had formulated its open standards policy in the first place. It was written in reference only to bespoke systems. But let's not spoil the party by picking hairs, for a moment at least.

Disregarding COTS, the policy was far cry from the prevarication that has characterised UK technology policy since 2010, when the coalition was elected. The government committed its open standards pledge to paper in 2011. The proprietary software industry immediately protested at what would amount to the confiscation of its means to assert monopoly power. The protest was led by COTS suppliers Microsoft and Oracle. The government's resolve was so weak it recanted.

Papier-mâché

Now reinstated, UK policy promises to stand as a fortification against the US software patent system's seemingly irrepressible colonisation of European computing and law. (As long as you disregard COTS, of course).

If the UK had not got its mojo back and revived its policy the collapse of Europe's prohibition on software patents would have been certain. Brussels had already pawned its own open standards policy.

Yet after such a fitful beginning it must be asked whether the government had ever invested any more faith in open standards than was necessary to sell election-winning ideas to voters, and whether it has now found only enough resolve to paint a papier-mâché policy in bold colours to silence critics, while kicking the heart of the matter into the long grass.

Papier Mache Egg.pngThe heart of the matter was semantics: if you took what was by definition a proprietary standard and called it an open standard, would it dupe everyone when put at the heart of an open standards policy? This was the central question the Cabinet Office used to justify 17 months of almost perpetual public consultation and industry debate. It was so absurd that a papier-mâché resolution seemed inevitable.

Indeed the heart of the matter was well hidden when the government announced the reformation of its policy yesterday.

Transparency

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude announced the details at a private conference barred to the press. His PR department issued the usual promotional guff, neglecting to mention how it had resolved the key policy question. Its technology spokesman took a holiday. Its press department claimed ignorance and snubbed requests for information. It leaked the announcement to the press selectively.

The heart of the matter was hidden deep within in a policy document that itself been placed obscurely.

Public bodies must use open standards that comply with the government's definition, it said: see footnote.

There is a definition, said the footnote, but: see glossary.

There are many ways to define an open standard, said the glossary - for ours: see annex.

An open standard, said the annex, is one that is royalty free - one that effectively gives no credence to property claims.

This was a resounding victory for the open movement, for the government, and for common sense. But the Cabinet Office had buried the nub so deeply that you could be forgiven for thinking it had something to hide.

Perhaps it hadn't found heart enough to see the policy through. This was the question the Cabinet Office refused to answer when it first declared for open standards in 2010: what power did it have to tell government bodies what technology they should purchase? What sanction could it enforce if they refused?

Francis Maude.pngThose non-plebeians privileged with an audience with Maude yesterday morning were given the message unequivocally.

Commandments

"Our Open Standards Principles... set out that Royalty Free open standards are key to levelling the playing field for open source and proprietary software in government IT," he told them.

Any residual doubt about his sincerity was eradicated by the "principles" themselves: the most authoritarian system of administrative dogma put to paper since Moses took a retirement job as food-ration monitor on a Kibbutz.

The principles contained within them 40 commandments the Cabinet Office said government bodies "must" implement as "an absolute requirement".

Each accounted for a different loophole through which a proprietary software company might inject one of its own standards into the UK's computing infrastructure.

Government bodies must write their choice of open standards into their systems specifications and procurement frameworks, it said. It would make no difference if they built their own systems or outsourced the work.

Existing systems would be marked for decommissioning if they could not be made complaint. Government accounting officers would be required to publish "legacy" exit strategies and commit to a deadline. They would have to seek approval for exemptions with detailed justifications.

Senior Responsible Owners of public IT projects would be made accountable for open standards and asked to base their decisions on a complex set of user, economic and legal criteria. All meetings and justifications would be published.

Liberty

John Winthrop.jpgIt seemed almost puritanical. It envisaged a community of public bodies conjoined by open standards, their disparate computer systems acting as one body, united under the covenant handed down to them in the Open Standards Principles.

This was the problem for protesting proprietary software suppliers, whose opposition was based in the enlightenment values of the market. The UK had no right to impose its authority on their property rights. There was a threat of legal action.

It came down ultimately to a question of liberty. But the answer was not straightforward and the Cabinet Office may have fluffed it.

Those users, software programmers, open source companies, public bodies and treasury officials who laboured under the imposition of monopoly rents proprietary software producers had claimed over standards might have found their own recourse in John Locke, the father of American Liberty: that they might not "be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man"; that they might not constrained as slaves, under the dominion of will, or restraint of US [software patent] law. Technology had not turned property into an imposition in Locke's time, not directly anyway.

The Cabinet Office may not have seen this when it slipped out its statement on open standards yesterday. Proprietary software producers had stuck dogmatically to the idea that government must allow them to do as they please.

The Cabinet Office therefore presented its policy as its own right, as a customer, to determine how it spent the £16bn-a-year it did on computing. Its policy made no direct imposition on the market.

COTS

The UK Open Standards Principles nevertheless contained among their 40 commandments, by which it had so carefully covered every eventuality, no reference to commercial, off-the-shelf software.

Its "absolute" requirements - those decrees of what departments "must" do - would apply to "document formats". But no more. The policy was about IT projects. It imposed no requirements on government purchasers of COTS.

The Cabinet Office was today unable to say whether this was an oversight or an intentional omission. A spokeswoman insisted the government had committed to apply open standards to COTS in its response to the public consultation which it also published yesterday.

But it had not. 82 per cent of people who responded to the consultation said the open standards policy should treat COTS just the same as it treated bespoke software.

The government response document said merely that this point of view "would appear to be appropriate".

But this view was not appropriate enough for the government to make it an "absolute" commandment in its policy document, the UK Open Standards Principles.

If there was any doubt about this, the reader could refer to the annex, where along with the definition of open standards the Cabinet Office had set out in no uncertain terms the semantics of the very specific language it had used in its decrees.

Thumbnail image for Oracle package.jpegThere it said "must" meant "absolute requirement". There was also "should", which was not absolute: it meant "recommended", and described those instances where the Cabinet Office conceded that there might good reason why a government department could not use open standards.

It didn't even bother with "would appear to be appropriate". We all know what that means.

UK open standards and the proprietary ecosystem

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Thumbnail image for Oak Tree Ecosystem.jpgThe coalition government was elected on the promise that it would resolve the notorious problems that had turned public sector IT into a disaster story.

It expressed some firm ideas. Then it had second thoughts. Now two and a half years on, its flagship policy has stalled.

What happens next will depend on the results of a public consultation, due imminently. The government's dilemma is how to implement the policy.


The question for the consultation is what the policy really means.

Essentially a Conservative policy, it held that the IT market was stagnant: IT projects were expensive because a lack of competition had inflated prices; IT projects were disastrous because technology itself had also stagnated. Since there was no competition, there was little innovation. And since there was little innovation, there was no competition.

The government's founding coalition agreement said in 2010 it would solve both problems. It would back open source software, a disruptive technology that was cheap and innovative. And it would promote competition by breaking public IT contracts up into smaller components.

Today

George Osborne with Liam Maxwell.pngThe man behind the reforms, deputy government CIO Liam Maxwell, insists government has made progress.

This progress was demonstrated last week, he says, when the government launched gov.uk, a website. It was built using open source tools.

Maxwell reckons the government has also cut £400m off its ICT bill of around £16bn by breaking some of its larger contracts up.

Yet the keystone of both these policies has still to be put in place. That is a third policy - its policy on open standards. Without it, the government IT strategy is a dead duck. It could neither remove the market barriers to open source software nor break its IT systems up in the way it wants if it didn't have open standards.

The problem was described recently by your correspondent in another place, thus:

"The market problem had been derived in the first place from technology's inherent need to work together, as a coherent system. The way it did that was using standards of communication, so one part of the system could co-operate with another, sharing applications, functions and data.

"The problem was that technology markets had coagulated into competing ecosystems based on their own proprietary standards. Dominant ecosystems used their standards to lock competitors out, stagnating the market.

"The coalition proposed that it would place government functions and data in the broadest possible ecosystem to ensure no single supplier or technology was so powerful that it couldn't be swapped with any other.

Thus contracts could be disaggregated and dominant suppliers replaced without causing problems for existing systems, while open source software could be deployed because it wouldn't be locked out by a proprietary ecosystem's standards.

"The government would do this by employing open standards - standards that can be used by any market participant and implemented in any technology without restraint."

But the three leading vendors of proprietary ecosystems - Apple, Microsoft and Oracle - opposed the policy.

They protested. They wanted the right to make proprietary claims on open standards, by claiming royalty payments. The government had said the thing that distinguished an open standard was that it did not countenance proprietary claims. The matter will be settled when the government publishes the results of its consultation.

Proprietary ecosystems

Microsoft has meanwhile sought to explain its opposition to UK policy by claiming its dominant proprietary ecosystem benefits the economy.

Asked to explain its position, it pointed to a 2009 study by IDC that said its Windows ecosystem would generate £18bn of revenues for UK companies that year.

For every £1 of revenue Microsoft generated in the UK, its supply chain partners would do £8.84 of business. Across Europe, companies in Microsoft's ecosystem would generate €110bn revenues.

Thumbnail image for For every $ spent by Microsoft in Europe.pngBut a study published by the United Nations University Institute for Advanced Studies found that for every €1 spent on proprietary software - in an ecosystem defined by proprietary standards - €0.86 went back up the supply chain to a company outside Europe.

In contrast, said the UN study, spending on open source software - operating necessarily in an ecosystem delimited by open standards - resulted in about three times the amount of money staying in the region where it was invested.

Its numbers had apparently proven the point that always seemed obviously so: the owner of a proprietary ecosystem would enjoy the spoils, though his cronies might get rich too. He wouldn't get nearly as rich if he joined the open standards ecosystem, but a lot more people would get a share of the spoils.

Carlo Daffara - Connecta.it.png£80bn

Carlo Daffara, the study's author, says his further calculations show that the UK saves about £80bn-a-year by using open source software. This figure is unpublished. You read it here first.

The saving comes, he says, from the way in which open source software is developed: collaboratively, with applications and functional components being shared freely, so anyone can adapt them or deploy them in their own systems.

It's the re-use that saves money, as Maxwell had been saying when pushing these ideas in Conservative technology policy papers. It also makes software less prone to error. Both advantages rely on open standards.

This was the basis of UK policy. But the government has been hiding in a bunker since the conflict between proprietary technology companies and their open source competitors became a battle of global proportions.

This conflict has made the UK look like an island, and the government seem ready to become a cowardly appeaser. It made a bold stand. But there is a strong likelihood that the Cabinet Office will abandon its open standards policy or fudge it in a way that makes it look one way and act another.

But the Cabinet Office should take heart after the humble appearance of Sir Tim Berners-Lee at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics.

Sir Tim had of course created the greatest of all the world's technology ecosystems, the World Wide Web. He has written that the Web's inestimable commercial and cultural benefits were possible only because it was built using open standards. He appeared at the Olympics like a benign master of ceremonies, gently waving from the centre of a whirlwind of steroids and trumpery, like the personal embodiment of open standards: miraculous and fragile, yet when defended resolutely, triumphant.

MPs get in a funk over open source

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Conservative Open Source Report Summary - Front Page - Mark Thompson - 27 JAN 2009.pngThe Conservative's open source technology strategy may have reached its culmination at a low water mark with the coalition government's renegotiated contract with Computer Sciences Corporation.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and chancellor George Osborne presented open source software as the antidote to the Labour government's "catastrophic" NHS National Programme for IT - and a recipe for cheaper and less botched government computing all round - when they launched their technology strategy in 2009.

Now four years on, what they have done instead is reconfirm £2bn the £2.9bn contract CSC originally signed under Labour, and dropped that bit of it that would have given them the means to open source the goods.

But the original Conservative tech policy was floated on a stream of opportunistic press leaks and anchored with a fishy tie-in with the then Conservative Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee chair Edward Leigh.

The coalition government's lack of progress since raises questions about whether it is prepared to put its weight behind the policy.

Spin

A party insider told Computer Weekly the NHS element of Conservative open source policy was spun to latch on to then current news about NPfIT - the National Programme, Labour's NHSIT disaster.

George Osborne - Edit.pngOsborne floated his open source policy on 27 January 2009, the same day the Public Accounts Committee published a report warning NPfIT wouldn't be delivered till 2015, four years late and at a cost of £12.7bn, because of BT and CSC in particular.

The weekend before the Public Accounts Committee released its report, Osborne's team did a last minute edit of his unpublished 2007 open source policy backgrounder.
Francis Maude - Edit.pngThe day the committee report came out, Osborne leaked his backgrounder to the tech press.

It had in fact been gathering dust in Osborne's draw for nearly two years. It was now unofficial Conservative policy: open source software would cut IT costs and "free government bodies from long-term, monopoly supply situations" such as its NPfIT contracts with BT and CSC.

A week later, The Times newspaper and Computer Weekly scooped the nethermost reserves of poop from the bottom of the Conservative policy headquarters' mudslinging barrel and slung them right in the then Labour government's bullseye.

It was a big bullseye. IT bodges had been par for the course since Labour took office in 1997.

The Times' had done an exclusive investigation of government IT bodges. But it was old news. The paper had dug right down into the archives, dragged up a clutch of rotten old IT bodges and slapped them up as an exclusive investigation.

Outrage

Leigh was so gullibly outraged he told The Times: "As a result of The Times' investigation I am going to immediately ask the Comptroller and Auditor-General [the head of the NAO] to investigate the whole matter of government IT spending and in particular the contracts highlighted in the paper."

The old dog must have had a short memory, because he forgot to mention he had already handled most of these IT bodges as chair of the Public Accounts Committee. And that's how The Times and Computer Weekly new about them in the first place.

The Times' investigation, published on 2 February, involved simply taking a bunch of old stories about IT budget over-runs and adding up the numbers. It said the total cost of Labour IT budget over-runs was over £18bn.

Edward Leigh and Dog.jpgBut £10bn of that came from the NPfIT cost over-run the NAO recorded in a report it had submitted to Leigh's committee three years before, in 2006. The NAO reviewed the situation again in May 2008 and stuck it in another report to Leigh's committee. After conducting its usual hearings into the 2008 NAO report, the committee then produced its usual report about the NAO report. That's the report the committee had published on 27 January - one that Leigh had been talking about in all the papers.

Now a week later, he was calling for the NAO to produce a report about The Times' report about his committee's report about the NAO report about NPfIT, as though it was the first he had heard of it. It was an outrage. It really was.

More outrage

Most of the rest of The Times' £18bn budget over-runs had come from HMRC's Aspire contract with Capgemini. The NAO had reported on this one in 2007. So had Leigh's Committee. So had the press.

Leigh had said in a 2007 committee press statement "the forecast figure is some £8.5 billion...compared with the original estimate of nearly £3 billion". Now two years on, The Times had reported it again. Leigh was outraged.

And most of the rest of The Times' £18bn came from the publication just 18 days before of Leigh's own committee report into the Ministry of Defence's Defence Information Infrastructure. That was about £5bn over-budget - a terrible state of affairs, really. But The Times' had learned about it from Leigh's committee, and they had both got it from the NAO about six months before. Now The Times was regurgitating it again, and Leigh was outraged like it was the first he'd heard of it.

Most of the rest of the £18bn came from Leigh's Committee's 2003 report into the Courts Service Libra project. Libra's cost had more than doubled to £400m, said Leigh in 2003, drawing from NAO numbers given him earlier. The cost had more than doubled to £500m, said The Times in January 2009, drawing from Leigh's earlier work. Leigh was outraged.

The rest of The Times' investigation regurgitated old news about three cancellations: a DWP benefits processing system from 2006, and police and passport websites from 2007. Ah and there was the National Offender Management Information System - then still work-in-progress for the NAO. Leigh was outraged.

Investigation

Leigh was so forgetful that no sooner had he called for an NAO investigation of The Times' investigation of the committee report on the NAO report than the whole idea of an NAO investigation was forgotten, like it had never even been officially proposed at all.

It hadn't. The NAO recorded no official request from Leigh for such an investigation. The NAO in fact never conducts general studies. So it says. So Leigh's committee would have been surprised if the NAO had done a general report into government IT bodges, because it has for the last 30 years worked to a Standing Order by which it examines about 40 of those non-general NAO reports every year.

This was all nevertheless important enough for Osborne to pitch in with a commentary in The Times on 3 February.

Osborne said: "Yesterday's report in The Times that government...IT is running nearly £19 billion over budget was genuinely shocking".

It seemed nobody had read any of Leigh's old committee reports. Or they were so far back on his shelf that everyone else had forgotten about them as well.

But at least Osborne had an answer to this old problem that he had known nothing of till The Times regurgitated it.

The solution, he said, was to stop handing out big IT contracts to the same old big suppliers and break them up into manageable chunks using open source software and open standards. Maude, then head of the Conservative Party's Implementation Unit, was to lead the work.

Now nearly four years on, the coalition government has still to reach a significant milestone on either its open source or open standards policies.

The big departments of state have continued to sign large contracts with the same old large suppliers. The same old large suppliers have opposed the coalition's open source and open standards policies, just as they oppose the contract transparency the coalition government promised as well.

The Tory top team may have been so desperate to put nails in Labour's coffin in 2009 that it would have said anything to get the vote - even that it would use open source software. The two parties were clambering over one another to make the most convincing noises about IT bodges. Labour's own open source policy had been gathering dust for years.

Boris campaign chief gives Twitter generals lesson in psy-ops

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Boris on Busblog.jpg The chief of Boris Johnson's Mayor for London re-election campaign has been touting for advisory work with military propagandists seeking to persuade civilians to see things their way.

Your correspondent was thrown out of a conference yesterday as Lynton Crosby, campaign director for Boris Johnson, was due to take the podium before a room full of new media generals and consultants determined to grab information supremacy in the twittersphere. 

Just a week after the Advertising Standards Authority shamed footballers for duping fans with covert advertising slogans on Twitter, Crosby was scheduled to tell the meeting of approximately 100 new media grunts "what politics can bring to military information operations".

His advice stayed behind closed doors after delegates complained to conference organisers IQPC that a journalist from Computer Weekly had been asking awkward questions and should be removed from the premises. But not before he had got an earful about the dark arts of persuasion.

The conference, which was sponsored by advertising agency M&C Saatchi, had already heard about the "tyranny of real-time journalism" and had the Occupy and Anonymous protest movements portrayed as threats to military propagandists.

While Twitter and Facebook were on everyone's lips, one military chief broke from the cover of anonymity granted by the conference's Chatham House rule to insist propaganda units were not permitted to work on civilians in their home countries - only those overseas. 

General Edward Burnley, who completed a 2010 tour as head of the 2nd Psychological Operations Group of the US Army, said: "Social media is very controversial. Primarily forces use it more for public affairs. For US military forces it's a rule set down in law: we are not able to do influence or psychological operations activity that could possibly impact US citizens." 

But experts warned the distinction had been lost in the twittersphere where information operations could not be confined to a "target audience".

"The future of communication is in 140 characters - that's Twitter and SMS," said one speaker following a briefing about the relevance of Somalian mobile phone penetration to a joint African Union and NATO counter-insurgency effort.

"This is an important topic," she said. "Military cannot influence an internal audience. But people from our country follow Twitter and Facebook so it's very difficult to use social media, because its difficult to create a borderline between external and internal."

We do what we're told

IQPC barred the doors when minutes later Chris Heidger, a sergeant in the US Army 4th Military Information Support Operations Command, gave a talk on how to use Facebook to change people's behaviour, drawing from the experiences of the US forces Balkans propaganda sheet, South East Europe Times. 

Press were also excluded when Air Commodore Ian Wood spoke about the UK Ministry of Defence's plan for information targeting operations.

The rest of the conference was a strange concoction of cynical indoctrinational strategies and valiant reports of marketing campaigns run by soldiers in Afghanistan, where invading forces strove to persuade civilian populations that they and not Taliban insurgents were the good guys.

Experts told the conference that since 99 per cent of people's thinking was unconscious, neurology and behavioural science provided the best techniques for military propagandists to subvert civilian beliefs. The trick was to press their emotional buttons.

Crosby, who led the campaign to bring Mayor Boris back to power in May, was due to talk about "knowing your targets and understanding how to change or reinforce the way they think or behave".

Other speakers insisted British information operations in Afghanistan were not political. Requesting anonymity, they said work persuading civilian populations was more akin to companies selling products than political agents promoting a narrow interest. 

Told to do 

Polls had shown British military advertising campaigns went down well in Afghanistan's unruly Helmand province. The number of people in Helmand who believed that if the Taliban returned to power they would misuse it had increased from about 40 per cent to 80 per cent in the year to January 2012. British forces had in that time spent £1/2m on informants and $1m each on billboard advertising and comic books that portrayed Afghan police as heroes. The UK campaign had analysed the Taliban's marketing message and cooked up ways to undermine it. 

Yet while only 20 per cent of Helmand citizens believed what the Taliban told them, less than 30 per cent believed what was said by ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, the occupying troops. 

The truth was a moot point. Lying was said to be dishonourable, and the truth to be the best weapon in an information war. It was said the Taliban had helped the British campaign by telling too many lies. 

Yet people mentioned fleetingly the use of covert, or non-attributed, campaign messages as persuasion tactics. Sometimes the truth was bent or obscured to protect soldiers lives. Black op's (pretending to be someone else) and grey op's (not saying who you are) where used, but were a taboo subject. Old US & UK psychological operations units appeared to be engaged in a struggle for information supremacy with information operations officers who had since the dawn of the information age brought advertising agencies and public relations firms into command headquarters.

General Burnley, in a promotional video for the event, said the US invasion of Iraq had been almost entirely about fighting at the beginning but information and psychological operations had by the end become more important. 

"We've done some training of the Iraqi's to provide them with some tools to do information operations, so it's not always necessary for them to kick down doors and fire their weapons," said Burnley, who now heads the 352nd US Army Public Affairs division. Where the US had once preferred to wage pre-emptive war, it was now asserting soft power. 

"If we could use information operations instead of bombing and shooting folks, how much better is that? By influencing them through our words and images, we could avoid war. It's a win-win situation for everyone," he said. 

Speaking aside at the event, he used the example of a covert advertising campaign his unit had deployed in Bosnia. It had sought to transcend local political factions with messages that encouraged people to ask critical questions of political powers. 

It sounded very much like politics. The conference portrayed persuasion tactics as the means of conversation with "target audiences". But their aim was "control of the message". They drew on behavioural science and psychology to change what people did and what attitudes they took. They used political polling agencies to measure the success of their campaigns. This was not manipulative, they said. It was influence. It was in the civilian sphere, but it was not politics, they said.

But it was do as I say (or do as I whisper) not as I do. For their own attitude was, 'don't answer back', as became apparent when they showed your correspondent the door.

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Open standards? You'll know one when you see one, says Microsoft

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voodoo_doll.jpgYou can't define an open standard, said Microsoft's policy director in an interview with Computer Weekly. But you know one when you see one.

That has become the essence of Microsoft's opposition to the UK government's open standards policy, according to Steve Mutkoski, worldwide policy director of international government affairs at Microsoft. You can't put your finger on it. And what'n'ever it is, it ain't what the open standards movement says it is.

It wasn't always so. How we got talking about this, in the atrium of Microsoft's swish London headquarters, was that the software giant had used a curious tactic to defeat UK open standards policy. Computer Weekly was trying to shed some light on it.

When Microsoft, the open movement's most powerful enemy, saw the UK hoist the open standards banner it did not try to have it pulled down. It tried to have the colours changed.

This is what the public consultation that closes Monday is all about. Microsoft and its cohorts in the proprietary software business tried to persuade the UK to their wording when it codifies open standards in official policy. The government asked for public support: is an open standard what we say it is or what Microsoft says it is?

Microsoft had used a dastardly ingenious tactic: steal your enemy's language of identity and you render him powerless. The open movement had evolved its own meanings for the words it used to define itself. 'Open standard' was the most important and most powerful, particularly since governments had started trying to put it on official headed paper. Its meaning had been forged in opposition to the proprietary software model. It and UK policy had been defined in explicit opposition to Microsoft's business practices. The movement had defined its own terms. Now Microsoft and its cohorts in the International Standards Organisation and Business Software Alliance wanted them rewritten on their own terms. They sought to impose their own meanings on their enemies' language, and when it was written on official paper their enemies would be metamorphosed into their own likeness. It was voodoo magic.

Microsoft Cardinal Place London.jpgBack in London

That was however no reason to dismiss the proprietary lobby outright. It had been so persuasive in private meetings and letters that the government pulled its first official definition of an open standard. If Microsoft had given a good reason it deserved to be exposed to the light of day.

So far we only had the what, not the why. Leaked correspondence revealed Microsoft and its partners had insisted patent holders should be permitted to stake royalty claims over open standards just as they did over every other sort of standard. They claimed the right to label proprietary, patented standards as open standards. It seemed nonsensical. There had to be a reason why.

Computer Weekly got its chance to find out when Microsoft's director of policy flew in from Seattle on one of those unusually sunny mornings in March. Mutkoski had come to personally lead the lobbying. Neither of us knew then how the lobbying was to backfire. But the important questions would still need answering.

So I asked the most pertinent of them. How could it be justified for a patent holder to stake a claim over a standard of software interoperability?

"I can explain that you," said Mutkoski. "But I will also start out with a proposition. Why should it not be the case?"

It was perhaps too much to expect a straightforward answer. This was what in debating circles was known as shifting the burden of proof. The whole point of the interview was to question Microsoft's assertions about open standards. Mutkoski was trying to shift the burden on me to prove the opposite of his case. That wasn't my job, or my cause.

The opposite case, for open standards, had already been made by the coalition government, and other governments before it. They made it openly. It seemed valid. They promised liberation in a world where public computer systems were hog-tied by Microsoft's desktop software monopoly and squished under the weight of Oracle's market power. Microsoft might be the only official monopolist in the room. But 70 per cent of all software bought by government was Oracle. This much was fact.

Steve Stephen Mutkoski - Microsoft.jpgGOTO 10

I put the question again. How did Microsoft justify its attempt to impose royalty claims on open standards?

The answer, said Mutkoski, was that the software industry supported a variety of business models. One of those business models involved people selling proprietary software licences. Those people should be included in the open standards definition.

This was still no reason why. And it was again nonsensical. The point of classifying something is to distinguish it. Create a subset of standards called open standards. Allow all varieties of software standard to be thrown into it and you no longer have a distinct subset. You have a hotch-potch.

But Microsoft might have a valid case waiting to be put cogently. Could he give an example that demonstrated why such royalty claims should be permissible?

"Here's why," said Mutkoski. "You are a products company. You are looking to create great, innovative products that sell. You can either do the R&D yourself, which is going to cost money, or you could license the technology I contribute. I need to get a return on my R&D. I think that's the paradigmatic why."

And it was a why. But it was the why of the proprietary software licensing model. There was still no sensible reason why this model should be imposed on the open movement.

I put it to Mutkoski again. For what reason should anyone be permitted to claim royalties over a standard of software interoperability?

He summoned for his answer the example of those telecoms and electronics-derived media standards that were later to be barred from the UK consultation: mp3, H.264, GSM and 3G. His case was that these standards had been successful despite being bound in hardware-derived patents. He denied there was any reason to distinguishing between hardware and software. His said that in both cases it was simply valid for someone to claim royalties over a standard.

Infinite loop

Yes, but why? What, say, are the H.264 royalty claims for? If we knew that then perhaps we could at least get the heft of a justification, if not the sense.

"I'd have to look there. There's no way I can answer that even in an hour. These are areas that are so complex."

"Do you know what the patent claims are for in H.264?"

"I know what some of them are".

"Can you give me an example?"

"Not off the top of my head".

"This is crucial. This is what I want to understand."

"Maybe you need to talk to a patent lawyer. I'm not involved in any of the organisations well enough to answer the kinds of questions you have about specific patents."

"Well then how can you say for sure that it's desirable to allow royalty claims over standards if you don't know what the basis of your argument is?"

"I think you are asking me to prove a negative. I would flip the question round and say to people who don't want to recognise royalties why they think it's desirable to not have royalties."

He was trying to shift the burden again. And anyway, Mutkoski was a lawyer. He'd been a software licensing counsel and attorney at Microsoft for years. I wasn't asking you to prove a negative, I said. I was asking you to prove your assertion. You are asking me to a negative, I said.

We had reached a dead-end in Microsoft's argument: the proprietary model should be imposed on the open model because the proprietary model. It was argumentum ad morantium. The Cabinet Office had fallen for this.

Mutkoski denied it was so. Innovators must simply be permitted to claim rewards for their efforts, he said. That meant claiming royalties over standards as well as the software implementations that used them. Convince me, I said. You convince me, he said. You can't prove your case, I said. You're tying to shift the burden he said. We were going round in circles, flirting around the software patent debate. That is what it was about for Mutkoski - the legitimacy of software patents.

Microsoft-proposed Cabinet Office open standards PPN.pngBut it wasn't. It was about open standards.

Break

We were having this silly Dervish debate because Microsoft and its cohorts had protested over the UK's attempt to define an open standard as something distinct from proprietary standards. This opposition seemed fatuous as well. If an open standard was distinguished by its not being proprietary then it would by definition not entertain proprietary claims. If its distinction was not that it was not proprietary then it was pointless distinguishing it all: just call it a standard and stop wasting our time.

Yet Microsoft, Oracle, the Business Software Alliance, the International Standards Organisation and the British Standards Institution all told the UK that proprietary standards ought to be included amongst those it called open. There was by their reckoning nothing to distinguish proprietary and open. Microsoft had even mocked up a Cabinet Office Procurement Policy Note, in official wording, that included an open standards definition with a proprietary clause stuffed in it. Standards constituted of proprietary licence terms known as FRAND were, it insisted, open.

When Computer Weekly asked these organisations to release the open standards definitions they had been pushing on the UK, they all refused. They weren't all that open themselves. The information got out anyway in a leak and a Freedom of Information request. When CW pushed them to justify their position, they either withdrew it or, as did Oracle, refused to speak. As has already been written, ISO said it did not even know what an open standard was, though it had been telling government how it should write its definition.

What has not been revealed before now is that BSI went further in distancing itself from the whole affair.

David Bell, BSI head of policy, told Computer Weekly: "We don't talk about open standards because it's not a concept that we - it's not part of our terminology. 'Open standards' is just not part of the vocabulary we use."

Bell's was the only sensible contribution the proprietary camp had made to the whole debate. Perhaps Mutkoski would make a similar climbdown when asked to clarify Microsoft's definition of an open standard.

He didn't quite climb down. He transmogrified. There was now no way to define an open standard for certain. It meant different things to different people. "From my experience," said Mutkoski, "its a spectrum".

Spectrums are what psychologists use to identify ambiguous mental conditions like autism. The human mind is so complex it can be hard to determine whether someone conforms to something so simplistic as a label. So psychologists determine how someone's behaviour maps to a spectrum of autistic traits. This is how Mutkoski wanted the UK to classify open standards. He reckoned they had five traits. Four of them concerned the way an issuing standards body dealt with them: how overhead costs where covered, that sort of thing. One concerned the actual substance of the standard: and only then to specify that it could be proprietary.

Market failure

Mutkoski's point was you couldn't put your finger on it. Even if Microsoft itself had a proprietary claim over an open standard, it might still be deemed open on the strength of its being formed in an open forum where the voting was arranged equitably and there was a liberal supply of cheese biscuits.

But who in this ambiguous world would determine which standards should be classified open and which proprietary, I asked. If every standard should be treated as an individual case, this spectrum approach implied an unreliable procession of professional assessments, tests and second opinions that might produce unsatisfactory diagnoses.

Let the market decide, said Mutkoski. And when the market failed? The market would correct itself. The standards ecosystem was sophisticated. It was self-correcting.

What went unspoken between us was the unsavoury example of the market failure exemplified in Microsoft's own .doc format, or Oracle's idiosyncratic implementation of Standard SQL. Those market failures could only be seen at a greater perspective than that conceivable by the standards ecosystem itself. The market failures had not corrected themselves. Government had decided to intervene. And even then only to spend its own money more wisely.

The spectrum seemed just another dastardly way to pull the rug out from the open standards movement anyway. A software standard is not a complex system like the human brain. It's not hard to put your finger on it. If you decide that an open standard is an amorphous concept and let anyone define it how they want, you make it impossible to say what it is for sure. It's then whatever you want it to be. Policy formed in this way would have the structural integrity of a freshly laid cow pat, or the semantic certainty of gobbledygook - at least for as long as it took the proprietary camp to have established in practice that all open standards were now proprietary.
Barbie Campaign.jpg
Fairly reasonable

To be fair to Mutkoski, there might still have been something he was failing to get across. He was better at expressing his ideas on paper, he said. He gave me a copy of a paper he had written about open standards: 'Defining Open Standards: A Comparison of Policy and Practice'.

The paper starts out by misrepresenting a famous paper by a Yale law professor on the "I know it when I see it" hardcore pornography ruling of the US Supreme Court, as though to give his case against open standards the appearance of authority.

Nevertheless, Mutkoski's proposition is that open standards have a fundamental problem: they rely for evidence of their own integrity on nothing but self-referential confidence. The problem with his critique is that it denies the open movement the right to self-determination. (Also ironically for a software patent expert, the paper he misrepresented is about freedom of speech). His analysis reduces the open standards policy efforts of the UK, Europe and India into a dissembling knot of gripes and picked hairs.

It's hard to put your finger on what an open standard is because different organisations have defined it in different ways, the paper says. What it does not say is this is most true of those who drafted open standards definitions after capitulating to the proprietary lobby. It's like saying laws against embezzlement are unworkable because some countries have loopholes in which gangsters operate freely. Just ask any gangster, he'll tell you its unworkable.

This left just one question for the proprietary camp. If an open standard was one that included proprietary licence terms, what was a non-open standard? Surely there would be nothing to distinguish them?

"I think that most people would probably agree that a non-open standard is a specification created by a single company, held within the company and not shared with anyone else, not available for licensing, not available for implementation," said Mutkoski.

But that wouldn't be a standard at all, I said. "It could be though," said Mutkoski. Ah so its whatever you say it is. I know it when I smell it.

FOI shows bureaucratic bungle behind open standards u-turn

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Standards institutions persisted in their opposition to the UK's open standards policy after Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude reassured them their fears about it were unfounded, according to letters released to Computer Weekly under Freedom of Information.

The revelation raises questions about the minister's subsequent withdrawal of the UK policy, on 30 November, which was by then under no substantial pressure bar lobbying from large US software companies and, bizarrely, the record industry.

A letter sent by Maude in June last year, and obtained by Computer Weekly, showed how he had even then already extinguished threats and fears raised by opponents of the UK open standards policy in official standards bodies in Chiswick and Geneva.

The International Standards Organisation and its UK franchise, the British Standards Organisation, had threatened that the coalition government would be in breach of international agreements if it persisted with the policy. This would have meant expulsion from the international standards community, a threat so severe that it sent the Cabinet Office into a tailspin of public consultations.

But the standards bodies had got it all wrong - and this they later admitted.

The letters now obtained by Computer Weekly suggest they either misunderstood the policy because their executive officers did not understand software standards issues, or they wilfully misinterpreted it to protect their business interests. Neither organisation was available for comment.

Francis Maude - Cabinet Office minister - letter to ISO - International Standards Organiastion - on open standards - page 1 - JUN 2011.pngISO had written to Maude on 18 May to protest UK policy amounted to a bar on its standards, which were protected by law.

It said the UK was otherwise seeking to distribute ISO standards free of charge.

Letter

Maude's reply in June told ISO it was mistaken. UK policy would require public procurement officials to specify open standards only "wherever possible". It recognised that not all technology the government required would satisfy its preference for open standards.

The upshot was that ISO standards might not be listed among those the UK recognised as open and mandated for use in public systems. The list was a measure to avoid problems like that experienced at Bristol City Council, which said it was locked-in to using proprietary Microsoft systems against its wishes.

But, Maude assured: "We do not plan to preclude their inclusion if they are the most fit for purpose in delivering our business needs. Therefore ISO, IEC and BSI standards may be included in the catalogue and in UK procurements."

The rules would have meant standards like the Open Document Format were mandated for use in government systems, while proprietary formats like, say, Adobe's pdf were approved for limited purposes in recognition of the fact that they had cornered a specific market in which there were no known alternatives.

It is not clear why ISO and BSI persist in lobbying against this policy on those points which the minister had assured them were misunderstood.

Meeting

Maude met with Mike Low, BSI director of standards, in the week of 23 July to discuss the matter. But Lowe, a civil engineer who has held his post since 2003, was not satisfied.

BSI email to Cabinet Office summarising meeting between Mike Low and Francis Maude - 27 JUL 2011.pngLow said in an email to Maude on 27 July that he and the minister agreed UK policy should not rely on so narrow a definition of an open standard that it excluded other standards deemed important.

Speaking as UK representative of ISO, and in apparent ignorance of Maude's May letter, he said the government would "allay their fears" if it revised its definition of an open standard in a way that would encompass ISO standards.

He went on: "We recommend you clarify that the term open is not regarding the pricing/licensing models but the fact they must have been produced through an open process."

The sticking point for ISO was that part of UK policy said an open standard was one that prevented anyone from restricting its use through patent fees or licence terms.

Since Maude later retracted the policy (on 30 November) and put the question of what is an open standard out to public consultation, it looked like the minister had caved in on an IT policy that defined his party's position on matters as wide as open source software and how best to avoid Labour IT disasters like the NHS National Programme for IT.

Tea-cup

BSI later confirmed that it had been assured by Maude's explanation. But only after Liam Maxwell, Cabinet Office director of ICT futures, had gone over it again with David Bell, BSI head of policy, in October. Maxwell gave the same assurances Maude had given in June and, presumably, July. This time, BSI said later, "We were reassured". Yet it still maintained its opposition to UK policy, only now without apparent justification.

In January, ISO said its 18 May letter had sought clarification on UK policy, expressing its fear that its standards "might no longer be eligible" for public systems in the UK because they didn't meet the UK definition of an open standard.

"In a reply in June 2011 the Minister of Cabinet Office noted the concerns raised and indicated these would be considered along with the results of the survey. We understand the UK Government is further considering actions it will take on the matter. In view of this we want to see what the UK Government's response will be to the analysis of survey results," said ISO.

It gave no indication that its concerns had already been addressed in a manner that had "reassured" its UK representative.

Labour IT mandarins make comeback bid for global transformation

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The last Labour government's "Transformational Government" project has been rebirthed in California as a plan for world-wide reform of seismic proportions.

Four leading emissaries of the initiative teamed up in London this month to argue against the UK's open standards policy and have tried to persuade the Cabinet Office to adopt their policy instead.

The group, convened as the Transformation Government Framework Technical Committee of the OASIS standards organisation, was formed in collaboration with Microsoft by officials of a government that became synonymous with IT disasters. It has recruited the World Bank and other international institutions to persuade governments around the world to adopt its transformational policy.

The TGF Committee has told governments they should drop policies that address technology directly - policies like the UK's open standards policy. It has discussed instead a plan for a world-wide technical standards body and its members have expressed a preference for the controversial FRAND standards the UK has been trying to purge from its computing infrastructure.

Having been launched at a December 2010 World Bank meeting on the premise that the market had already settled all standards dilemmas of any importance, the OASIS TGF proposed in its first official publications this Spring a reform programme that incorporated privatization, civil service job cuts and a hegemonous computing architecture that all governments must follow.

OASIS TGF TC.pngClose-knit

Former deputy e-Envoy Chris Parker formulated the plan with the help of Microsoft worldwide policy director Steve Mutkoski. It was published by his company CS Transform, which had been paid by Microsoft to do work on the theme.

John Borras, a consultant for CS Transform and a senior member of OASIS, convened the OASIS TGF committee around the CS Transform plans. Borras had worked under Parker in Labour's Cabinet Office as director of technology. Other founding members of the committee included Peter Brown, managing director of a Brussels-based software consultancy called Pensive SA, where Borras also worked as chairman, and Andy Hopkirk, who as a director of the UK National Computing Centre in 2000 had helped Borras and Parker implement the Labour government's IT strategy.

Brown, Hopkirk, Mutkoski and Parker argued against the UK coalition government's policy at the first meeting of the Cabinet Office's open standards consultation on 4 April. This was the same team that had launched the TGF with Borras at the World Bank.

Ajit Joakar, another opponent of government policy at the Cabinet Office meeting, was notable for support he gave Mutkoski and Parker when they first elaborated early ideas for the TGF committee in 2009. Linda Humphries, the Cabinet Office policy official who convened the April meeting, was a junior official when Borras, Parker and Hopkirk held their senior posts there.

Denials

Borras told Computer Weekly the World Bank, European Commission and the European Regional Information Society Association were all "keen" to implement the committee's plans. The World Bank is currently formulating an ICT strategy for developing countries, while ERISA represents local governments across Europe.

He denied the plans had been formulated from narrow interests. "There's no chumminess," he said. The OASIS committee was "open and transparent".

"I've worked with many of these people over the years. Working for the UK government, I built a network of contacts around the world.

"We feel technology is not a barrier any more. So the focus has moved to business change. Governments are not organised in a way that is conducive to delivering online services. They need to restructure the way they do business. We are trying to help them on the best way of doing that," said Borras.

He denied his group was promoting a political agenda. He said TGF had not proposed privatisation and job cuts - described in his committee's Framework as "mixed economy service provision" and "restructuring of the public labour market". He said the plan was for "restructuring of operations to maximise the delivery of services...in the most efficient way". His committee had met with Cabinet Office officials who were considering its proposals.

Connections

Chris Parker told Computer Weekly Borras had known nothing about the Transformational Government plans being formulated at CS Transform until they were sent to him in 2010. He said Borras had merely been a consultant at CS Transform on a project basis. Parker said the original transformation plan had been formulated by Parker himself and Bill Edwards, a CS Transform director who also worked with Borras and Parker at the Labour e-Envoy Office as director of e-Communications, and also as managing director of Directgov. Edwards also joined their OASIS TGF committee.

Parker also played down Microsoft's involvement. He said CS Transform earned most of its income from governments. It had been paid by Microsoft but not specifically to produce the TGF proposals.

The TGF proposals were however formulated in collaboration Microsoft and CS Transform has co-branded a Microsoft brochure on the topic. Parker refused to discuss specific work CS Transform had done for Microsoft and whether the work had been supplied by Mutkoski, his colleague on the OASIS TGF.

Borras had in fact also worked for Parker at Gov3, the consulting firm the latter formed with Edwards on leaving the Labour Cabinet Office in 2004. Andrew Pinder, who as UK e-Envoy had been their ultimate boss in Labour's Cabinet Office, had launched Gov3 with them. Their work at the Cabinet Office had controversially produced a government system that forced people to use Microsoft technology.

Gov3 had similar proposals to those CS Transform adapted with the help of Microsoft to form the OASIS TGF committee. It was similar to their work at the Labour Cabinet Office. Borras said it was in fact an "evolution" of that work. The Gov3 work was also supported by the World Bank, where Borras, Edwards and Parker are official e-government advisers.

Borras said the OASIS TGF proposals did not require governments to adopt specific standards. But it was a topic the committee would address. It currently required government's to implement their computing infrastructure using the OASIS Service Oriented Architecture Reference Model.

"What's an open standard?" says ISO

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The International Standards Organisation has admitted it doesn't know what an open standard is, despite trying to have the UK's open standards policy quashed.

The situation has left ISO and its franchise partners, such as the UK's British Standards Institution, looking a lot less authoritative. While open standards are being branded onto statutes around Europe, and after more than half a decade of controversies so great it caused street protests against ISO's treatment of the open standards issue, the legal authority on standards now refuses even to acknowledge its existence.

Yet ISO and its partners had so successfully lobbied against the UK open standards policy last year that the Cabinet Office withdrew it. And its lobbying, like that of all those who opposed the policy, concerned one specific question: what is an open standard.

ISO and its partners said the UK had got the answer wrong. So what then should it be? That's what Computer Weekly has been pressing ISO to say since January.

"ISO does not have a definition of 'open standard'," is what ISO said finally this week.

It sounded incredible. But it exposed how frail ISO's position had become.

Last year it had, along with other standards bodies and the software patent lobby, been trying to get the UK to change its definition of an open standard from one that forbade anyone claiming patent royalties on an interface or protocol to one that permitted them. But the redefinition would have made the official definition of open standards indistinguishable from the definition of a proprietary standard that just so happened to be the sort of standard favoured by ISO & co.

ISO and the rest of the standards and patent establishment has subsequently been unable to define an open standard because what they have been telling the UK government an open standard should be is indistinguishable from their proprietary model. They have been found out: they are in fact opposed to open standards, though they have not been as bold to say so; if it is not that ISO is too blockheaded to see it, it is then too artful to admit it.

The blockhead theory would be no surprise. The kernel of ISO's standards policy is the patetn accord it struck in 2007 with the International Electrotechnical Commission and the International Telecommunication Union. It is a blanket policy to be applied to standards for everything from knob sizes and widget mechanisms to software interfaces. It sounds like a fudge because that's what it is.

Malcolm Johnson, director of standards at the ITU, said when the accord was struck that it was a compromise between patent holders and "the interests of end-users".

It was an act by which old-world standards bodies steeped in hardware patent traditions sought, in sweeping disregard of the differing modus operandi of software, to hold software producers to their old-world terms - like an overbearing parent, or an outmoded establishment fearful of losing its grip on power.

This lack of an open standards definition, let alone policy, is telling. It was formulated, or not, by the international network of ISO franchise bodies such as the BSI, whose seniors form the main constituent parts of the ISO governing council, its general assembly, and its technical advisory board. These members have in common a business model that is at odds with UK policy. The UK would have open standards that, like the standards maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium, are free at the point of use. ISO members use charges at that very point as a source of income. Their opposition to open standards must thus be couched in terms of their own financial interests as well as the financial interests of patent holders or they cannot be fully understood.

It is tempting in light of all this to look at the collective curriculum vitae of ISO's governing officers and conclude, blockheads one and all: either too old, too fat or too comfortable; what do they know of software?

ISO president Dr. Boris Aleshin, former Russian deputy prime minister, is an aviation electronics expert. Vice president Sadao Takeda, former IT mandarin at the Japanese Ministry of Economy and Trade (Japan's equivalent to the UK's blockhead Department of Business, Innovation and Skills) is a former engineering academic. Technical vice president Dr. Elisabeth Stampfl-Blaha, a lawyer by training, is a career, old-world standards wonk. ISO treasurer Julien Pitton is a former Swiss investment banker and likely wearer of bow-ties. Rob Steele, ISO secretary general, is a chartered accountant.

(It is only how it looks, but that is how they look: like the Adam's Family had landed cushy jobs in Geneva; or a recasting of the Soprano's: Rob Steele is probably in therapy over his inability to come to terms with the progressive turn the world has taken since he took up the administrator's cummerbund.)

The BSI has already admitted it did not know why it was lobbying against the UK's open standards policy, only that is what it had been told to do by ISO in Geneva. ISO in turn says its policy is formed by constituents like BSI. Does anyone know what's going on? BSI's resident standards experts are from non-IT, engineering fields. It's public policy expert is a career standards wonk who cannot explain its software policy either.

It was no surprise this week therefore when ISO was also unable to give Computer Weekly any examples of when it's policy might be justified. That is, when it might be justified for a patent holder to make a claim on a software standard. Neither could BSI.

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.

Police ICT reforms evade detection

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Home Office plans to make police more accountable will make police ICT less accountable, and at a time when it is becoming in the words of Lord Wasserman, the man behind the reforms, "the key to fighting crime".

Chief police chief Sir Hugh Orde has already made the simplest connection between technology and jobs, warning overspend on databases means underspend on neighbourhood coppers. But Orde, Wasserman and Home Secretary Teresa May have been slow to factor a more important trend into their plans to make police more accountable: more police technology will lead inevitably to more policing by technology. Yet their plans to privatize police technology are designed to deregulate it too.

Their own deliberations have been less accountable than their talk of accountability would suggest. Now at least six months since Wasserman's guidance on police ICT was being distributed to senior officers, the Home Office has refused to release it under Freedom of Information, telling Computer Weekly it didn't exist.

Wasserman, Orde and May have meanwhile been promoting its unpublished recommendations and on 4 July officially announced its core proposal, the privatization of the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), the quango currently responsible for police ICT. But there is still no documented justification of what seem like half-baked plans.

Wasserman got busy punting the plans on the policing conference circuit soon after their original publication deadline was missed last December and got settled into his seat in the House of Lords. The revised publication deadline for his recommendations nevertheless slipped again in June. May is said in Home Office records to have been reading initial guidance since December. MPs have meanwhile been denied the opportunity of scrutiny.

Andrew Love, Labour MP for Edmonton, asked in May for Wasserman's terms of reference to be placed in the Commons Library, along with correspondence and minutes of his meetings with the Home Office. Policing minister Nick Herbert fobbed him off. The papers did not appear.

Wasserman himself refused to appear before the Home Affairs Select Committee, its chairman Keith Vaz MP complained as the committee considered the government's police reforms on 12 July.

Even if he was willing, Wasserman couldn't answer MPs that day because he was busy promoting his reforms at a conference of criminal policy wonks. He stood in "at very, very short notice" for Herbert, who had taken ill, and defended the plans against critical reports that had appeared that week in these pages.

The Committee had to make do with Sara Thornton, chief constable of Thames Valley Police, who shared a podium with Wasserman the day before at yet another conference. She was therefore more familiar with Wasserman's plans than MPs, so filled them in.

The other conference honoured with a briefing on the reforms was a "discreet" City Forum where Wasserman also shared a podium with industry bigwigs Paul Sellick, public services director of Steria, and Bob Quick, chief executive of police consultants Bluelight Global Solutions (of which more later).

Wasserman told the conference how urgent it was that the Home Office carried out his reforms, as trailed by the Home Secretary on 4 July, which involved giving suppliers (like Steria and Bluelight) shareholdings in a privatized NPIA - shareholdings, that is, in the same company that awards their contracts.

Thornton told MPs how Wasserman had told industry how his reforms relied on removing the Home Office remit over police ICT - making it less accountable, you might think. You would be right. Another central plank of the reform was making police ICT unaccountable under the law.

"If it was set up as a company, it could then be exempt from EU rules about procurement, which could make the whole process much speedier because it would be acting like a commercial company. I think that is the proposal," Thornton told MPs.

Police chiefs knew even in February of Wasserman's plans to turn the NPIA into a "GovCo", a private company over which the public sector retained part-ownership. A summary of his proposals has been on the Association of Chief Police Officers' intranet since 8 March. Two days later, Wasserman was promoting them at the Home Office-backed Policing 2011 conference.

All this made the policing minister's confusion before the Home Affairs Select Committee about what was and was not part of the reforms seem conspicuous.

When Vaz pressed Herbert on 28 June over the question of a GovCo, he insisted firmly, "No. There is no plan for a Government-owned company". Just to be sure, he promised that the House of Commons would be the first to hear of the plans when they were at last published.

Six days later, the Home Secretary broke the news at the annual conference of police chiefs that the NPIA would be turned into a GovCo after all. The actual plans remained unpublished.

With all this unaccountable tinkering going on, the police service might be relieved to know Wasserman's on the case. As "Personal Adviser to Prime Minister and Home Secretary", he explains on LinkedIn, he has been charged with making the police service "more accountable to local communities" and "freeing it from interference from bureaucrats in central government".

Even Bill Bratton, the US supercop the Prime Minister wants to lead London's disgraced Metropolitan Police, knew of the plans last December, when Wasserman chaperoned him on what was for the sake of this episode in British policing his Westminster debut.

Bratton ought to have known anyway. Wasserman, who Bratton employed at the New York Police Department in the 1990s, has based his reforms of police procedures on the methodology with which the latter earned his spurs.

That's the CompStat system of data-based policing, in which cops allocate resources to hotspots on crime maps and, crucially, are charged with reducing and not merely detecting crime. That means prevention, and will revive, in conjunction with the liberalised procurement of police technology, concerns about a surveillance society.

Not that there are necessarily concerns with CompStat alone, it being little more than data.gov combined with some sort of Six Sigma process improvements. Though it interesting to note even former MET chief Lord Blair punted the Home Affairs Select Committee with the CompStat line on behalf of Bluelight, the police consultancy he now chairs. And when the policing minister introduced Bratton at a his sort-of-debut last December (where the idea of Bratton's leading the MET was floated) Herbert sang the praises of both the US cop and those of his methods Wasserman had incorporated into his unpublished but much promoted police reform plan.

But Wasserman's GovCo, of which we have now learned just a smidgen, is moving against the tide of accountability, knowledge and transparency that has swept in these other reforms. It's hard enough already to get information about police ICT out of the Home Office, even under Freedom of Information or with the power vested in our elected representatives. Imagine how hard it will be to hold the burgeoning progress of police technology to account when it's managed by a private company.

See also: Cabinet Office collars Liberata as NPIA police data deal crosses open source policy

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