Microsoft hustled UK retreat on open standards, says leaked report

The British government withdrew its open standards policy after lobbying from Microsoft, it has been revealed in a Cabinet Office brief leaked to Computer Weekly.

The Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) also formerly opposed the policy before Cabinet Office withdrew it. BIS supported Microsoft’s position against open standards, the backbone of the government’s ICT policy. The Business Software Alliance, infamous for its lobbying against open standards policy in Brussels, also lobbied against the government policy.

Microsoft took up direct opposition to the ICT Strategy’s pledge to give preference to technologies that supported open standards of interoperability between government computer systems, said the briefing paper.

The software supplier was concerned this would prevent companies from claiming royalties on the point of exchange between those systems.

It complained specifically about the wording of UK procurement policy, which in January 2011 established a definition to explain its edict that open standards should be used in government computing wherever possible. UK policy specified that “[open standards] must have intellectual property made irrevocably available on a royalty free basis”.

Microsoft said it supported the aims of UK open standards policy – specifically that government systems should be interoperable, that it should be possible for government to re-use purchased software components, and that government should not be “locked-in” to using particular technologies.

It also told the Cabinet Office it “agrees that open standards are key to delivering this [policy mission]”, said the brief.

But it opposed the Cabinet Office office definition of an open standard. It said the definition of open standards adopted in the government ICT strategy would hamper innovation and restrict “freedom of choice for citizens”.

It said the government should officially adopt standards only under terms defined as Reasonable and Non-discriminatory (RAND). It referred to this as FRAND (Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory). This would permit patent holders to claim royalties from anyone trying to implement the standard.

It’s position was identical to that taken by other representatives of the corporate software establishment, led by the Business Software Alliance.

Their lobbying of government would effectively erase open standards from UK policy, as it had already successfully done with the European Commission’s last statement on standards, the European Interoperability Framework 2.0. Their preferred RAND licence terms are a standard feature of non-open software standards including those encumbered with hardware patents that have nevertheless come into widespread use such as GSM and WiFi.

Microsoft told the Cabinet Office its open standards policy would prevent RAND standards such as mp3 and GSM from being used in government computer systems.

UK policy had however established a preference for open standards “wherever possible”. It would have allowed departments to use non-open standards when there where no open options or when the widespread use of a proprietary standard prevented alternatives from being deployed.

The Cabinet Office is expected to open a formal consultation on the rescinded policy this month, a month after it was due to publish its first list of mandated open standards.

The open source lobby has advised that abolishing the open standards policy would undermine the other key element of government ICT policy, to create a level-playing field open source software.

Open Forum Europe, a trade body, said FRAND terms precluded their implementation by open source software suppliers because the open source business model did not support collection of royalties.

In opposition to the patent lobby’s arguments against open standards, the Free Software Foundation Europe, a lobby group, has cited internet standards in defence of royalty-free models.

Microsoft refused to talk to Computer Weekly about its consultation with the Cabinet Office.

It said in a written statement: “Microsoft fully supports the Government’s ICT strategy and its goals of reducing cost and complexity, and increasing information sharing, interoperability, openness and re-use.”

The BSA said in a written statement it also supported government’s policy aims.

“However,” it said, “reducing public procurement expenses in the UK does not require the adoption of a policy which undermines the value of Intellectual Property and Innovation.”

Cabinet Office said in a written statement: “No lobbying has taken place that has affected our approach in creating an Open Standards definition that works for government.”

BIS also refused to discuss its differences with Cabinet Office. It said in a written statement: “Discussions are still ongoing between the departments with many options being considered.”