Effective Lobbying For Open Standards

Saturday, 2008-February-02 at 20:09


What Are We Talking About?

While I am an advocate for free software and open source software, this is not what we are discussing here. In the (Tuttle, Oklahoma) City Manager versus CentOs incident, the official stated, (as quoted in the Tuttle Times) “This is just a bunch of freaks out there that don’t have anything better to do,” he said. “When I came in to work Monday morning, I had about 500 e-mails, plus anonymous phone calls from all the geeks out there. [CentOS is] a free operating system that this guy gives away, which tells you how much time he’s got on his hands.”

This highlights the fact that some people consider FLOSS to be subversive or abnormal. Since even those people stand to benefit from implementing open standards in government agencies, we need to advocate the two areas separately.

We are talking about open standards, such as standardized network protocols and file formats. As the group behind Samba has found, if one vendor can monopolize an important protocol, it can hinder its competitors from gaining ground in business and government organizations. Corel’s WordPerfect suite and Novell’s NetWare network operating system, both formerly leaders in their categories, may also have suffered from anti-competitive effects of a single vendor’s formats and protocols becoming de facto standards.

If you ever found software that fit the way you worked, and then found that you could not submit files created by that application for submitting documents or resumes to government agencies, and that any documents released by those agencies are in a foreign proprietary format which your application imperfectly translates, you have experienced proprietary, single-vendor, de facto standards. Such standards take away your freedom as a citizen, selling control of your computer and the software you use on it to some company whose interests may be opposed to your own.

So, then, we should seek to require our government agencies, schools, colleges, and their contractors to utilize standardized formats and protocols, which can be freely and completely implemented by any vendor at any time, are not dependent upon particular software or hardware environments (such as a particular operating system or a particular vendor’s software or libraries), which are not subject to “intellectual property” restrictions, and which are implemented (essentially complete implementations) in multiple products, including some with licenses approved by OSI or FSF.

Why Open Standards?

Why should individuals and organizations, and our government agencies in particular, seek to establish open standards? Why should we specify and require open standards?

A government organization has a responsibility to its citizens, not just citizens that use the leading software products, but to all of the citizens. Since there are hundreds of applications (current and former) just in the office software category, the best way to offer reasonable accommodation of all users’s needs is to utilize open standards. This has another positive effect: it keeps any particular vendor from obtaining a taxpayer-subsidized monopoly. This helps keep vendors humble and responsive.

Requiring open standard formats and protocols also makes it easier for free software and open source software projects to compete for an organization's procurement approval.  This can make it possible to choose OSAF's Chandler, for example, or Mozilla's Thunderbird + Lightning, over Microsoft's Exchange & Outlook, without losing any functionality because of one vendor's products communicating using a secret protocol instead of an open protocol, although it is certainly possible to lose some functionality if the applications themselves do not support it.

Using open standard protocols and formats also helps (indirectly) to constrain employees’ feature usage. Have you ever opened a document where someone had downloaded some funky font which was not available on your system? Your software will often try to guess which font is the best substitute for the one specified in the document. This is where two different computers may choose different fonts. Perhaps the user types a line of text and then formats it (bold, underline, 18pt, centered, with .005 inch of extra space beneath the text) as a section heading, but does not use the application’s “heading” styling tool. This again may not translate correctly for those who are not using the same application and version as the original creator of the file. Or maybe the document uses WordArt and your software implements its own artistic text tool differently. In such cases, the best thing is to avoid using features that do not translate well between different applications and versions, and a sound organizational technology use policy will seek to enforce this.

Private organizations have much less responsibility to those outside of the organization. However, a for-profit organization has a responsibility to its owners and investors. Utilizing open standards frees the organization from being a captive wallet to its vendors. If a particular vendor decides to raise its prices by a large amount, the organization gains the ability to say, “roll it back or we change vendors.” This does not mean that the vendor will always back down, but a truly open standard (I would argue) will have multiple substantially-complete implementations (including at least one with a FLOSS-compatible license, which should generally be the reference implementation), which gives the buyer the ability to select another vendor when that is appropriate and desirable.

Using open standard file formats frees an organization from COTfile disease, which is what happens when someone sends you something and you Cannot Open This file.  It reduces the need for import and export filters, while preserving fidelity.  A large proprietary software vendor recently released an update that disabled access to several legacy file formats for "safety" reasons.  Assuming that they were not just trying to scoot customers into buying the newer version of their product instead of retaining the existing version longer, one may speculate that they directly mapped memory structures to file formats, and are now concerned that the structures they used are vulnerable when certain data is retrieved into them.  A good open standard file format is not optimized for any specific vendor, and therefore is less likely to directly map to an application's in-memory representation.  This gives more opportunity to inspect and clean the data, protecting against flawed data (intentional or otherwise).

Using open standard network protocols means that clients and partners can interact and interoperate with your organization more easily, even where one organization is using a different vendor's products than the other organization is using.  Open standards can reduce or eliminate the need for translation layers

On top of this, there is the gratuitous version change, in which your software vendor decides that its revenue isn’t large enough, so it moves some buttons around in the interface, hides some menu options and displays some previously hidden menu options, and tinkers with the application’s default file format just enough to make sure that users need to upgrade their existing software (which presently meets their needs) or face incompatibility with other users with whom they exchange information.

And of course, the “abandonware” problem. If your organization has been around a few years, somewhere in your organization are probably some files created in 1987 using WordStar for DOS or some other product that has gone to the dustbin of history. Depending upon the application, your present software might not be able to read it (even if you could find a working 5″ floppy drive). If the format was a secret, you might not be able to legally open the file today without finding a way to re-animate the original application if opening could require reverse-engineering. Even if older versions are legally safe to reverse-engineer, versions released since DMCA passed may not be safe. The use of vendor-controlled, proprietary file formats places the organization’s data in jeopardy.

I would encourage you to familiarize yourself with the ideas.  Start at the OASIS OpenDocument Format site, to learn why an open file format matters.  In the light of the push to try to force OOXML through ISO, it is also important to know the difference between an open file format and a proprietary format in sheep's clothing

Why Lobby?

Despite the opinion of pro-Microsoft lobbying group ACT’s Morgan Reed, open standards, like open software, have been badly outgunned in the government advocacy department. Last year, a single company defeated open standard file format moves in several states, including California and Florida. Until elected officials feel that their offices are at stake, they will kowtow to proprietary software companies seeking exclusive deals, rather than taking a “good government” stance and seeking vendor-neutral acquisition policies. It starts with writing well-reasoned statements of what is desired and why, such as the one I wrote in support of last year’s California bill AB-1668. If you can’t write well, call or visit the offices of your representatives. They need to know that their constituents are watching to see whether they choose to serve our interests or the interests of a small number of corporations. Or speak to different organizations in your local community, explaining to them why their interests are best served by ensuring that their governments use open standards.

Another reason to lobby and otherwise advocate the use of open standards is that the issue has not yet occurred to most people. People need to know that the reason the World Wide Web is useful is because users do not have to use a single vendor’s software to open most Web sites. Whether users have Internet Explorer, SeaMonkey, Firefox, Opera, Safari, K-Meleon, Galeon, Epiphany, Flock, Songbird, or Konqueror, sites and browsers generally follow a common set of open standards, such as HTML 4.01 and XHTML 1.0.  Once people understand that the Internet is made possible by common, standardized protocols and file formats, it is only a short leap to asking why other software on their computers does not work that way.

Using open standards and protocols also enables the organization to select software vendors and products based on what is best for the organization—which vendors and products best meet the organization's needs, including pricing, access to source code (and ability to distribute changes), availability of patches and updated versions, the responsiveness of the application, the responsiveness of the vendor, availability of knowledgeable local resources to help with any implementation or deployment issues, and the underlying software environment the application expects (e.g., which operating system, which Web browser, which libraries).

Okay, How Should I Lobby?

First let us consider how not to advocate: <productname>rox! u haterz suxorz! might sound great when you visit Slashdot, but in the real world, people will reject even good ideas if the messenger brings them in this manner.  Make sure you are clean and odorless.  Leave your politics at home.  This issue is more important than which politician's friends will be allowed to steal from us for the next four or eight years.

Secondly, focus on the public benefit, not on the activities of any particular enterprise.  Do not make your appeal into an anti-anyone rant.  Not anti-Microsoft, not anti-Oracle, not anti-AutoDesk.  While Lewis Mettler has a theoretical solution to Microsoft's repeated misconduct, that solution is not likely to be approved anytime soon.  Rather than try to tailor something to Microsoft, we want something that will not only deter Microsoft from misusing monopoly power, but something which will also deter whatever company follows Microsoft onto the stage.  We want something that will forever separate data (both as files and as messages sent over a network) from being chained to the application that produced it.

Public benefits are things like vendor independence, government sovereignty, lower cost, and easy accessibility by citizens.  Of course, the archive factor is one of the biggest public benefits.  Many of the records that government agencies generate or collect stay around for decades.  Something that enhances the ability to preserve data and to access and utilize it in the future is definitely a benefit.  An example of this would be moving from a closed proprietary set of file formats to an open standard format such as the ISO-standard format ODF.  Avoid getting railroaded into a discussion of OOXML if you can avoid it—the objective is far more than just keeping our governments from selecting Not-so-open XML—instead specifying that setting the right standards for acceptance is more important than whether any specific format meets those standards.

Discuss privacy and security issues caused by vendors' phone-home software: "Do you know that a certain vendor's operating system and office software products call home and tell the company about the computers they are installed on?  Do you know that the computer's owner cannot turn that off or the software stops working?  We do not know what is getting sent, but these days, just the potential that someone's SSN might be part of this transmission should make us think about how to work without that vendor's software."  Be sure to point out that even the most privacy-sensitive agencies still have this snoopware on their systems, as long as they are trapped into using a single vendor's products, and be sure to mention that moving to open standard file formats and network protocols immediately makes it less likely that a vendor will use such underhanded techniques, and gives the agency the chance to leave any vendor which does use them.

Appeal to local pride and competitiveness: use a list such as this one to calm fears that a particular government agency will be the first or only one adopting open standards.  Give information about which localities are considering adopting open standards, so that decision-makers begin to see that they risk being late adopters.  Find out what the major local industry is, and see what is going on in other places where this same industry is found.  Discuss the economic impact of choosing to support a de facto standard format, especially since the vendor behind that format is changing it again.

Discuss how the choice affects your pocketbook and the pocketbooks of others like you, as well as any employers and organizations in which you are involved.  You can be sure that companies which depend upon control of proprietary formats to keep out competitors (as well as companies that depend on such companies) will turn out to oppose anything that could free their customers to utilize competitive offerings.  If you can, show where choosing a proprietary format or protocol instead of an open standard harms locally-based businesses, resulting in lower tax revenues and higher costs to local governments.

Submit information in ODF and other open standard formats, and offer assistance installing Sun’s ODF plugin if the government agency complains that they are unable to read it.  (Of course, if you need the service they are providing, it you may have to submit .doc/.xls versions as well.)

Finally, recognize that this is not a one-shot deal.  What is necessary is continued and long-term involvement in advocating for this issue and assisting with implementations wherever possible.

Entry filed under: ODF, Open Standards. Tags: , , .

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