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Locked in by choice: How European governments are handling their Microsoft addiction

Europe-wide research finds that government departments are deeply dependent on Microsoft software and services, while attempts to migrate to open source are difficult, temporary and sometimes under the radar

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Microsoft has built such an empire inside the European public sector, that attempts to challenge its dominant position are rarely successful. Nevertheless, some government agencies have managed to migrate to open source alternatives. How have they done it?

In 2012, the then European Union (EU) commissioner for digital agenda, Neelie Kroes, said that not only EU institutions, but all government bodies throughout Europe should implement open standards. Her policy was designed to free public bodies from dependence on proprietary software suppliers.

The UK has made the biggest strides in encouraging large government departments to increase their use of open source software, through initiatives by the Government Digital Service (GDS). Although local authorities and the NHS are still heavily reliant on proprietary software, the message is gradually spreading to smaller government departments in Britain.

But five years on, EU civil servants rely on Microsoft Office and Windows. As a result, the public sector is hooked on a digital dependence on Microsoft that costs billions of any currency. Experts say this inhibits innovation and raises technical, political and security risks.

Under EU competition policy, public authorities are expected to award software contracts through open tender. But the way government agencies use Microsoft “is no longer compatible with the rule of law”, says green member of the European Parliament (MEP) Jan Philipp Albrecht, a lawyer and rapporteur for the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

Across Europe, public IT systems run on Microsoft: tax, health, police and court records – demographics data collected about Europeans are stored by government bodies in a proprietary file format. Dropping it in favour of free software would require extensive investment in re-training and resources.

Open source software does not necessarily mean zero cost. Public sector organisations will often pay for support contracts from organisations such as Red Hat and Canonical, but proponents argue it ultimately benefits the taxpayer if government departments are not locked into a single supplier.

Microsoft’s pricing model is difficult to itemise, even for those whose job it is to figure it out, because packages are sewn together in different ways, making it almost impossible to compare costs from one ministry to another.

“Any monopoly will attempt to create stronger dependency between the client and its monopoly products. By making the whole thing complex, it becomes difficult for both the customer and for any journalists to compare the price of competing products,” says Bjorn Venn, IT advisor and project leader in Akershus county, Norway.

It was not long ago that the European Commission (EC) legally challenged Microsoft over its abuse of market position, which led to the corporation paying a multimillion-pound fine. According to EU competition rules, it is not illegal to dominate a market, but the company has a particular responsibility to ensure that its market behaviour doesn’t restrict competition.

The software maker now faces another potential anti-trust investigation, following discussion between IT security software providers and the EC, over Microsoft’s bundling of its Defender security software with Windows and the company’s share of public sector contracts.

“We are aware that Microsoft is abusing its dominant position [with public administrations]. But partly because we are currently focusing on Google, we are waiting for a formal complaint,” says an EU official.

Breaking the habit

This public sector preference for closed source software is being gradually challenged across Europe, despite its deep and expensive roots in the fabric of IT services.

According to estimates by the EC in its 2012 report Against Lock-in, lack of completion caused by public sector organisations becoming locked in to proprietary software suppliers leads to higher prices.“Some €1.1bn per year is lost unnecessarily in the public sector alone,” it stated.

In March 2016, the EC published an in-depth study, conducted by consultants from PwC, on the ICT procurement best practices that reduce lock-in. It found, contrary to EU policy, more than 2,620 references to 188 named suppliers in a sample of 1,726 tender documents. The most frequently mentioned brands were Microsoft, SAP, Oracle, IBM and Linux.

The challenge to Microsoft’s dominance began with government agencies switching from Microsoft Office to open source alternatives.

An Italian job

In Italy, the Defence Department started the process of migrating to Libre Office in September 2015. This is no mean task, with MS Office being removed from 100,000 machines by 2020. The department hopes this will save Italian taxpayers up to 29m.

At an open source conference in Turin, Italy, we met Camillo Sileo. He was the man to spearhead the switch of the Italian Defence Department to open source.

LibreDifesa – the name of his digital migration project – is a success, says Sileo: “We have analysed how our employees used MS Office, compared with how they use Libre Office, and concluded that there was no productivity loss.”

Sileo was lucky to have free training for his staff: after the study, the non-profit association LibreItalia – dedicated to promoting open source office suites – sent in volunteers to train the Italian Army.

The document format used by Libre Office, ODF, has yet to be certified as secure by Nato. Sileo is confident that this will happen, but in the meantime, classified text documents still have to be saved in an MS format.

The Italian Army still uses 20,000 Microsoft licences, which will expire in 2020, when Sileo expects Microsoft to begin hard lobbying of Italian defence stakeholders.

Gendarmerie uses stealth tactics to move to open source

The Gendarmerie Nationale, one of France’s two main police forces, has been hard at work on a more ambitious open source project, which includes the move from Windows to open source operating systems.

The French state police operates 72,000 computers that run on Linux, GendBuntu and OpenOffice. According to the latest figures made available by the French authorities in October 2016, the move saved around 20m between 2005 – when the open source project kicked off – and 2014.

The Gendarmerie started using open source software in 2001, for economic reasons. An internal memo dated 11 December 2006 revealed that the migration was expected to save the French police, which had been using Microsoft until then, around 8m a year.

It was a risky move. The Gendarmerie, fearing it would come under pressure from Microsoft and other government departments to stick with proprietary software, went to great lengths to keep the project secret.

Threat to monopoly

The same memo noted: “The choice of Linux can be seen by MS as a new threat against its monopoly. This situation can justify targeted action to prevent [the migration] or to discredit the Gendarmerie Nationale’s policy regarding workstations.”

It recommended that the migration to Linux was carried out “without any publicity” to avoid the possibility of external disruption. The project should be made public “only when the process is irreversible”, the memo read.

The migration is nearly complete. But the Gendarmerie Nationale is still under “a constant pressure” from ministry officials to return to Microsoft, according to an anonymous, well-placed internal IT employee of The French Ministry of Interior. “Every day the system works it’s a slap in the face of the administration who claim that only Microsoft is working,” he says.

An internal note from the French Ministry of Interior, dated 14 April 2016, revealed that officials asked the Gendarmerie to migrate to Windows 10 to guard against hacking vulnerabilities in open source. The French Interior Ministry has refused to comment on the memo.

“The main reason why a company or an authority would choose a proprietary system over open source is to have someone to blame if something goes wrong,” says Richard Tynan, a technologist at Privacy International. “The corporate convenience is very seductive to people who are under pressure to get stuff done.”

Munich’s move to open source leads to political controversy

Meanwhile, in Munich, Germany, the efforts invested in open standards use by the public sector are under threat. Former mayor Christian Ude, a free software supporter, shared a dialogue he had with Microsoft founder Bill Gates at the start of the city’s great leap to open software.

The two met at a conference in California and drove a car together to the airport. “Why are you doing this? asked Gates. “Because we want freedom,” replied the mayor. “Freedom from what?” asked Gates. “From you!” replied the German. They were talking about Munich’s local government’s transition to open source.

City council meetings in Munich don’t usually attract much interest beyond the city. But the meeting in February 2017 was different. Press and audience filled the benches in the main auditorium of the magnificent neo-Gothic town hall to capacity. Local politicians answered media inquiries from all over Germany and even from other parts of Europe.

For a decade, a team of experts have toiled to transfer the local government’s IT system from the American IT giant Microsoft to open source software. Despite hefty costs, including training, this change has saved Munich municipality €11m in seven years.

Ude and others hoped that Munich would lead the way to open source migration and that Europe would follow suit. But now lord mayor Dieter Reiter and his coalition in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Christian Social Union (CSU) want to connect the city back to Microsoft.

The argument is highly political. The SPD mayor is dependent on the votes of the CSU. The Christian party and its supporters are driving support for Microsoft. Dorothee Belz, who served Microsoft Europe until 2015 as vice-president, is a member of the CSU Economic Council’s management team.

“Apparently, it is only a ‘political power game’,” says Florian Roth, head of the Green Group. “Do we really want to make our administration increasingly dependent on the American monopolist Microsoft?”

The UK government’s open standards policy

Meanwhile, Britain has taken a daring step in ensuring that anyone wishing to consult public sector information can do so without being forced to spend on proprietary software first. As such, British public institutions are required to publish everything in an open format.

The use of open standards is highly encouraged and expected when competing in this market, says Terence Eden, open standards lead at GDS. “It is unacceptable for citizens and small businesses to have to acquire software from a specific provider to communicate with the authorities,” he says.

And the British National Archives (TNA) could not agree more. Nested in Kew, one of London’s prettier suburban areas, TNA hosts 1,000 years’ worth of records, among which is the Domesday Book, a manuscript of the 1086 “Great Survey” which set out to determine the taxes owed under the reign of King Edward the Confessor.

Digital director John Sheridan has the unenviable task of going through data records before securely storing each file – text, video, audio, image – in its original format, to become part of the country’s legacy. Open source and open formats, Sheridan says, would make their work easier and cheaper.

Sheridan sits on the UK government’s open standards board. He says open source and open formats make a huge difference to the memory institution’s risk mitigation work and resources.

“Many people in the open source community haven’t appreciated how much benefit their work is to people like us,” he says. “We would like the open source community to understand what difference they’re making for memory institutions.”

Neverthless, TNA’s spend for Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office licences increased by more than 20%.

The TNA has a policy of protecting the integrity of the original document. The means most of the original text documents are kept in a Microsoft format. As Windows and Office versions change, to avoid losing access to important files and data, TNA invests in the necessary software upgrades.

Trust and anti-trust

Despite the progress made in the UK towards open source, the public sector in the rest of Europe remains highly dependent on proprietary software.

The debate has moved on from using open alternatives to Microsoft Office, to the use of open source operating systems and software in government datacentres and the cloud. “There is an enormous potential [for open source],” says Dietmar Harhoff, director of the German Max-Planck-Institute for Innovation and Competition.

 “The main reason it is not used is the inertia of most of the public administrations,” says the innovation expert. “Usually, there is no long-term planning, so the real costs are not calculated. If this would be done, it is obvious that open source would be cheaper and more efficient.”

Lock-in is the result of many complicated factors. One of them is Microsoft’s business model. Throughout the world, the group sold 45bn worth of software in 2014, according to a report to the European Commission. That’s about as much as the gross domestic product of Estonia and Latvia combined.

Björn Lundell, professor of computer science at the University of Skövde in Sweden, has delivered a report on the lock-in to the Swedish Competition Authority. In it, he questions whether public sector organisations can realistically get the best prices from Microsoft. “Everyone realises that it is not the world’s best starting point in negotiations with a car dealer to be forced to buy the same car,” he says.

In the private sector, the German tech giant Siemens reports that open source software has saved the company significant sums. “If we didn’t not work with open source, we would have to hire thousands of additional programmers,” says Karsten Gerloff, head of open source development with Siemens.

Throughout Europe, plenty of public sector bodies have migrated, or at least tried, to open source software: a pension fund in Sweden; schools in Polish city Jaworzno; Rome’s city administration; Camden local council in London; public authorities in Nantes; the regional government in the Spanish Extremadura; or the Portuguese city of Vieira do Minho.

Rome's city councillor, Flavia Marzano, says that cloud computing has not ended the debate about open source and proprietary software. Public adminstrations should keep their data in-house, rather than outsource to a third party, she says.

"At the end of the day, those who are against open software can say that cloud computing has solved the problem. Its not true," she says.

If open source software becomes the norm across government organisations, every innovation could be used automatically by other municipalities without incurring additional costs.

But the open source projects across most of Europe so far are still islands in the Microsoft ocean.

Investigate Europe reporting team: Maria Maggiore, Paulo Pena, Crina Boros, Leila Minano, Harald Schumann, Elisa Simantke, Bill Goodwin


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