Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The battle for open standards needs you.

Many of you are probably not aware but at this moment in time there is a battle ongoing within the UK which will help shape the future of the UK 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 in favour of royalty free (RF) open standards in the UK. I'm not going to go through the benefits of open standards in this space other than to note that they are essential for UK'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 then 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 a 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 vs FRAND which doesn't exist.

Whilst this is clearly wrong and underhand, 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 pressurised 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 wilful 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" filing the room with unrepresentative views backed up by vendors flying in senior individuals from the US. 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. Both work mainly outside the mainstream media which 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 "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 the bullying of Government by large corporations protecting profits worth hundreds of millions through misinformation and rigging by paid lobbyists. 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 prototype 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 initiativesTheir silence makes me wonder whether investigative journalism into things which 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 UK as SOPA / PIPA was to the US but rather than fighting against a Government trying to do something which 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 then that's understandable but just don't ever grumble about why the UK Government doesn't do more to support open standards and open source. The UK 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 you, so get involved.

Life is all about competition whether individuals, companies or nations. Open standards and open source are both tactical weapons that can drive competition and efficiency in IT markets whilst enabling the innovation of new industries. In today's age, Governments that ignore this do so at the peril of their own future industries. It's upto us to make sure that our Government doesn't get bullied by lobbyists into adopting a position which is not in our national interest.

P.S. On another note, since Microsoft seems to think it's ok to lobby the Government in this way for naked self interest ... does anyone know how much revenue Microsoft makes in the UK and also how much corporation tax it pays here?