Freedom of Information Act: Microsoft Rules O.K.

One of my favourite commentators on the Open Source phenomenon is Glyn Moody. And today he has clarified something I had been struggling with for a couple of days now.

The story in question, from The Inquirer, is basically this:

Becta refused to satisfy a Freedom of Information request made by the INQUIRER for details of the latest Microsoft schools megadeal, “after consultation with Microsoft.”

Which is pretty bad really. We are talking about Taxpayers’ (that’s you and me friend) money here. Why should we not be allowed to know what our beloved Government is spending with a US Software company on our children’s behalf? And don’t forget that it’s a company that has been convicted of monopolistic and anti-competitive practices, so it should be even more important we know what we are giving them. Shouldn’t it?

Well, on the face of it I bought the argument from Becta that goes:

If Becta, a UK government quango, published details of schools’ Microsoft spending, it “could give rise to an actionable breach of confidence by Microsoft against us,” it said. This was a “considerable risk”, it added.

And further, plausibly stated:

Becta said there could also be repercussions in disclosure for itself: “We have concluded that disclosure of any part of the MOU would prejudice the commercial interests of Becta and of schools throughout the UK because the significant savings achieved under the MOU would be put at risk,” it said. “We believe that our future negotiating position with Microsoft would be weakened and we would not be confident of our continuing ability to obtain the best deal possible for those UK schools that choose to purchase Microsoft products,” it added.

If we ignore the fact that the Microsoft products are pretty crap, and they aren’t really the right thing for education to be using in the first place, I can sort of understand the bit about their negotiating position – if they know no better.

But I wasn’t totally convinced… Something was niggling at the back of my mind as to why this is really bad…

Enter Glyn:

I do realise that it’s too much to hope that Becta will take open source seriously, but I wonder if it has ever crossed Becta’s chosen minds that putting themselves in this position of snivelling dependence on Microsoft isn’t actually the optimum way to get the best deal for UK schools – even for those benighted enough to want to bathe their charges in the delicate glow of BSODs. Has it ever occurred to them that if they started negotiating from a position of dignity and strength, rather than abject, supine servitude, they might just possibly do their job a teensy-weensy bit better?

Microsoft is scared witless by the prospect of open source getting a foothold in schools, and would agree to any deal rather than let the UK education system discover the power and value of free software. Becta is actually in an incredibly strong position, and yet somehow manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The idea that “our future negotiating position with Microsoft would be weakened” if it dared to cross Masher Microsoft, as it has claimed to The Inquirer, is simply risible, and shows how desperately out of touch it is with the realities of the marketplace. The sooner this particular quango is abolished, and decisions are made locally, the better.

Ouch!

Thanks for clearing that up Glyn ;-)

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5 Comments

  • Andrew Hall says:

    Government & its agencies should never agree to confidential clauses in contracts when purchasing off-the shelf products or services (where the nature of the product is well known to all).

    Civil servants like commercial confidentiality clauses simply because it stops the public from scrutinising them. A bulk buyer of any product is in a strong negotiating position. It is bad for schools and therefore school children that Becta deals are secret. There are many countries including Spain, where open source software is promoted by government.

    Becta is also attempting to close off the interactive whiteboard market to open source software & other innovative software by creating their own file format in an entirely closed manner, using a small group of whiteboard manufacturers. Companies not complying with this closed format will be at a disadvantage compared those in the inner Becta circle.

  • Alan Lord says:

    Thanks for commenting Andrew.

    It really does suck when you have public funds being spent secretly and even more so when they are sent abroad.

    Your last comment is quite worrying – do you have any good on-line references to this issue?

    Thanks again

    Alan

  • [...] greater were the signing of a new MOU not all-but guaranteed. Additionally, as The Open Sourcerer asks, as UK tax payers, are we not entitled to know what those discounts are and how much is being [...]

  • Andrew Hall says:

    Becta talks “open” but acts “closed”:
    http://industry.becta.org.uk/display.cfm?resID=35000

    Becta gave the common file format project to RM plc. So far there is:
    - no publication of feedback on the file format
    - no publication of code
    - no forum on the Becta website or any other website.
    - virtually no emails to companies who have signed up on the email list.

    So the so called open project is definitely closed to all but a few companies and Becta. There’s a promise to publish code in June 2009, but by then it will be too late – everything will be fixed.

  • Alan Lord says:

    It does seem like a bit of a dog’s dinner doesn’t it.

    On the surface the announcement is good. Sourceforge, Source Code etc all to be published etc. And yet, as you say, there is no “open development”. It all seems to be happening behind RM’s [closed] door.

    I do find it amazing how, especially public bodies, just don’t *get* what Open Source is really about. How on earth do they expect to come up with a specification and a product in a closed environment and just release it to the community when it is finished? They just don’t get it do they?

    I would argue that as the development of the spec is happening in a closed environment, you would have a serious case against BECTA and the other parties involved of anti-competitive practice. As they will surely have had access to the format and development time way in advance of anyone else thus giving the “club” a significant first-mover advantage. Also, seeing as this is almost certainly being funded out of taxpayers’ money, creating it in secret when the goal is an open standard also seems to be dubious to say the least… Perhaps a rather public message to this effect might “open” the process a little?

    Anyway, for the record, here is the end of BECTA’s press release with the relevant details dated 26/11/07:

    “… Phase one started on 19 November and it is anticipated that the final file specification and documentation will be produced at the end of June 2008 when Phase two will start. The source code of the viewer, library, all documentation and installer will be published on the SourceForge website by the end of June 2009 followed by the roll out of a support programme for publishers.

    RM will carry out the development work in close liaison with Becta, Besa, whiteboard developers, publishers and other stakeholders. Invitations for others within the industry to participate in the development will be made on both the Becta and BESA websites.

    If you wish to participate in the consultation phase of the development of the file format please register your interest by sending an email to CommonInteractiveWhiteboardFormat@becta.org.uk.”

    Al

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