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The UK's battle for open standards

The UK government is fighting for open standards, but it needs help.

Many of you are probably not aware, but there is an ongoing battle within the U.K. that will shape the future of the U.K. tech industry. It’s all about open standards.

Last year, the Cabinet Office ran a consultation on open standards covering 970 CIOs and academics. The result of this consultation was a policy (PDF) in favour of royalty-free (RF) open standards in the U.K. I’m not going to go through the benefits of open standards in this space, other than to note that they are essential for the U.K.’s future competitive position, for spurring on innovation and creating a level playing field within the tech field. For those who wish to read more on this subject, Mark Thompson, the only academic I know to have published a paper on open standards in a quality peer reviewed journal, has provided an excellent overview.

Normally, I put these battles into an historical context, and I certainly have a plethora of examples of past industries attempting to lobby against future change. However, to keep this short I’ll simply note that the incumbent industry has reacted to the Cabinet Office policy with attempts to redefine open standards to include non-open FRAND (fair, reasonable and non discriminatory) licenses and portray some sort of legitimate debate of RF versus FRAND, which doesn’t exist.

Whilst this is clearly wrong and underhanded, there’s another story I wish to focus on. It relates to the accusations that the meetings have been filled with “spokespeople for big vendors to argue in favour of paid-for software, specifically giving advocates of FRAND the chance to argue that free software on RF terms would be a bad thing” as reported by TechWeek Europe.

The back story is that since the Government policy on open standards was put in place, the Cabinet Office was pressured into a u-turn and running another consultation by various standards bodies and other vested interests. The arguments used were either fortuitous misunderstandings of the policy or willful misinformation in favour of current business interests. The Cabinet Office then appeared to relent to the pressure and undertake a second set of consultations. What happened next shows the sorry behaviour of lobbyists in our industry.

Software patent heavyweights piled into the first public meeting,” filling the room with unrepresentative views backed up by vendors flying in senior individuals from the U.S. It apparently seems that the chair of the roundtable was himself a paid lobbyist working on behalf of those vested interests, a fact that he forgot to mention to the Cabinet Office. Microsoft has now been “accused of trying to secretly influence government consultation.”

What’s surprising is that the majority of this had been uncovered by two journalists — Mark Ballard at Computer Weekly and Glyn Moody — who work mainly outside the mainstream media. In fact, the mainstream media has remained silent on the issue, with the notable exception of The Guardian.

The end result of the work of these two journalists is that the Cabinet Office has had to extend the consultation and, as noted by The Guardian, “rerun one of its discussion roundtables after it found that an independent facilitator of one of its discussions was simultaneously advising Microsoft on the consultation.”

So, we have two plucky journalists who stand alone uncovering large corporations that are bullying Government to protect profits worth hundreds of millions. Our heroes’ journey uncovers gerrymandering, skullduggery, rampant conflicts of interests, dubious ethics and a host of other sordid details and … hold on, this sounds like a Hollywood script, not real life. Why on earth isn’t mainstream media all over this, especially given the leaked Bell Pottinger memo on exploiting citizen initiatives?

The silence makes me wonder whether investigative journalism into things that might matter and might make a positive difference doesn’t sell much advertising? Would it help if the open standards battle had celebrity endorsement? Alas, that’s not the case and the battle for open standards might have been extended, but it is still ongoing. This issue is as important to the U.K. as SOPA / PIPA were to the U.S., but rather than fighting against a Government trying to do something that harms the growth of future industry, we are fighting with a Government trying to do the right thing and benefit a nation.

If you’re too busy to help, that’s understandable, but don’t ever grumble about why the U.K. Government doesn’t do more to support open standards and open source. The U.K. Government is trying to make a difference. It’s trying to fight a good fight against a huge and well-funded lobby, but it needs you to turn up.

The battle for open standards needs help, so get involved.

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  • http://ukwebfocus.wordpress.com/ Brian Kelly

    I have participated in what you refer to as a ‘battle’ in providing my comments on the consultation document, based on work in helping to develop best practices for use of standards in higher education based on ideas described in a number of peer-reviewed papers.

    It seems to me, though, that the battle can be characterised as being between supporters of Microsoft and supporters of Linux. Sadly the users of IT Services face the danger of being collateral damage in the battles.

    To give one specific example, are you suggesting that an open standard such as MP3 which is encumbered by patents, should not be permissible for public sector bodies? And if an patent-free alternative is mandated. what are users who have invested in devices such as iPods and iPhones which do not support such standards expected to do?

    The needs of the user needs to be considered in these policy decisions, and at present that is not happening.

  • http://webmink.com Simon Phipps

    Brian: No, that sort of absolutism is not sought by most participants, and the consultation has a well-defined exception mechanism usable where there is a strong explanation of why a standard with restrictions on its implementation is unavoidable.

    But the proposed policy does create a preference for truly open software standards where they exist. This is a rational and balanced approach aimed at breaking the stranglehold of the incumbent suppliers without breaching EU rules, and I very much support it.

    Those “users” you seem to be using to defend the incumbents deserve better than continuing lock-in and I believe the proposed policy takes their needs into excellent account.

  • http://blog.gardeviance.org Simon Wardley

    Hi Brian,

    Simon Phipps has hit the nail on the head.

    The Cabinet Office policy provides a well defined exception mechanism with a preference towards open standards that are royalty free and hence not encumbered by patents. Such open standards can be implemented either in open source or proprietary technology.

    To characterise this as Microsoft vs Linux is wrong. This is simply a Government preference towards open standards over encumbered standards, a level playing field over a constrained playing field, or if you prefer a free market over a captured market.

  • http://1800CableTV.com/home Heather Protz

    Wow. Kudos to the two journalists. That is some task indeed.