Microsoft accused again over UK government lobbying practices

Further evidence has emerged of the extent to which Microsoft lobbied the UK government over its policy on open standards

Further evidence has emerged of the extent to which Microsoft lobbied the UK government over its policy on open standards.

Steve Hilton, a former director of strategy to David Cameron while opposition leader and as prime minister, has claimed that Microsoft threatened to shut down research facilities in Conservative constituencies over Tory plans for government IT reforms.

According to The Guardian, Hilton told an event in London to promote his new book that, “When we proposed this, Microsoft phoned Conservative MPs with Microsoft R&D facilities in their constituencies and said, ‘We will close them down in your constituency if this goes through’.”

Hilton did not mention when this took place, but his comments back up a similar statement revealed by Computer Weekly last year from Rohan Silva, who was a senior advisor to David Cameron on digital policy from May 2010 to June 2013 – while Hilton was working for the prime minister - and a former economic advisor to George Osborne.

Silva spoke at an event in London in October 2014 and said he helped write a speech in 2007 while the Conservatives were still in opposition, on open source and politics in the digital age that seemed to worry Microsoft.

“A day or two before we were going to give the speech, a couple of backbench MPs called the office – they said Microsoft had called them saying if we went ahead with the speech on open standards, open architecture and open source, they would cut spending or maybe close research and development centres in the constituencies of the MPs they had called,” he said.

“I was pretty worried about this to be honest. I went to see George [Osborne] and he said if Microsoft has a problem with the speech they should call us directly. I relayed that back to the MPs and we never got a call from Microsoft, so we went ahead with the speech. But for the public affairs department, the relationship was never quite the same.”

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Microsoft attacked the UK government’s decision to adopt ODF as its standard document format, saying it is “unclear” how UK citizens will benefit

Microsoft consistently opposed the ODF policy, its last chance to overturn the UK government’s broader plans for open standards

Microsoft will roll out the ability export documents in ODF in Office 365, regardless of original file format, to adhere to government policy

Microsoft lobbied for years to prevent the government pursuing its open standards policy, which eventually saw the adoption of ODF as the standard for document formats, a decision Microsoft campaigned hard to prevent.

A 2012 consultation on the definition of open standards was delayed after it transpired an independent facilitator in the process was being paid by Microsoft

Even before that consultation, the supplier had been pressuring the Cabinet Office for changes to its open-standards policy, backed up by industry group the Business Software Alliance, which represents the interests of many proprietary software providers.

In February 2014, Microsoft rallied its network of partners to try to overturn plans to adopt ODF, in favour of the default format used by its Office products. That attempt proved unsuccessful, and Microsoft was openly critical of the move, telling Computer Weekly at the time it was “unproven and unclear how UK citizens will benefit from the government’s decision”.

An investigation by Computer Weekly last year revealed Microsoft had also turned to then science minister David Willetts to help win its case, with the supplier’s global chief operating officer Kevin Turner getting involved.

However, since then the software supplier has softened its stance. In March this year, Microsoft added the ability to export documents in the latest version of the ODF standard to Office 365, to adhere to UK government policy.

In November last year, Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella, met with UK government CTO Liam Maxwell, prompting Maxwell to say: “The conversation has changed.”

“Nice to hear about avoiding lock-in, putting the user first, the importance of design and how competition is the dynamic we all need,” Maxwell said at the time.

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