Computacenter gags Bristol City Council over anti-open source 'bias'

Computacenter has prevented Bristol City Council from publishing details of a consulting project that has been overshadowed by allegations of anti-open source bias.

Computacenter has prevented Bristol City Council from publishing details of a consulting project that has been overshadowed by allegations of anti-open source bias.

Bristol refused to release advice received from Computacenter concerning the choice of infrastructure to support the council's 7,000 PCs and the allocation of more than £8m of public money.

Computer Weekly requested details about the pilot project under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act after MPs investigating the relationship between government and IT suppliers were told by a key expert witness that Computacenter had skewed its parameters to favour Microsoft, thereby undermining Bristol's seven-year campaign to replace proprietary computing platforms with open source software.

But Stephen McNamara, head of legal services at Bristol City Council, said Computacenter had refused the authority permission to release the information.

Computacenter has power to take legal action against the council if it releases the information, even under the FOI Act. This makes it commercially sensitive information under section 43 of the Act and prevented the council from releasing it without the supplier's consent.

"Disclosure of these documents constitutes a breach of confidence actionable by Computacenter," said McNamara. "Disclosure could only be given by their consent. They do not consent to these documents being disclosed at this time."

He said the documents were working documents and Computacenter would produce a "summary of the outcome" of the work when it was complete.

A Computacenter spokesman said the firm was unaware of any such discussions taking place.

"With the key contact at Bristol City Council away on leave we are unable to give you any further information at this stage," he said.

The Bristol project is seen by many observers as a test for the coalition government pledge to "create a level-playing field for open source", and is the latest effort of open source advocates to overcome a perceived bias towards proprietary platforms.

Mark Taylor, CEO of open source software supplier Sirius and leader of a Cabinet Office working group looking at how government can buy more IT from SMEs, told MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee in June that Computacenter had sacked Sirius as an advisor on the Bristol project for protesting that it was biased to favour Microsoft. He claimed the bias was evident in the documents Computer Weekly requested to see.

Taylor, who also provided input to coalition IT policy, told MPs Computacenter had assumed from the start of the pilot that proprietary software was preferable to the open source software Bristol considered to be a low-cost alternative. He claimed the supplier built this bias into the pilot and lobbied the council to "dilute" the open source element of its IT strategy. Computacenter said at the time Taylor's accusations were "potentially libellous" but refused to discuss them further.

Section 43 of the FOI Act exempts the release of information that might prejudice commercial interests. Information Commissioner guidance stipulates public bodies "must explain why" they believe release of information might be prejudicial. They can only assert clause 43 if there is a public interest in refusing publication.

McNamara did not say why the release would prejudice Computacenter or why it was in the public interest to withhold it, and declined to release e-mails exchanged between Computacenter and Bristol about the pilot. He did, however, supply the record of a single project meeting the council held with Computacenter, Sirius and other parties on 25 January. That meeting's minutes record that the proof-of-concept project's terms of reference were submitted by the council.

Computacenter said the project is nevertheless proceeding to plan.

"We are pleased to say that the project currently being conducted with Bristol City Council is moving forward in a positive and constructive way. As with any project that is yet to reach completion, there are still decisions to be made and we are currently still completing a crucial proof-of-concept stage," said the firm's spokesman.

"Once these decisions have been made and the software has been implemented, we would be more than happy to give a full update on the success of the project and the key choices which were made by both Bristol City Council and Computacenter."

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