Fighting Megatron: five steps to freedom

Fighting Megatron: five steps to freedom


The free software world is being attacked by a large, wealthy, brutal monopolist, who I’ll call “Megatron” for today. As I wrote last month, Megatron is driving its OOXML tank through the village church of open standards, doing unspeakable things to the ISO process, with the intention of locking in a generation of computer users to its stack of patented, restricted, and undocumented formats. It’s about freedom, some of us want it, others want to take it away from us.

Let me give you some examples of how far Megatron has his hands around the throat of the standards process. Cote d’Ivoire, in West Africa: chairman of the board is a Megatron business partner, elected unanimously. Switzerland: the chairman tells the participants: “however you vote we will say ’yes’ to Megatron’s proposal”. Mauritius: the vote takes place at an event hosted by Megatron. Megatron evangalist Doug Mahugh travels to New Delhi, Sydney, Czech Republic, Belgium, Slovenia, Munich, the Ukraine, Kiev, Beijing, Sao Paolo, Santiago, Bogota, Mexico City, Kenya, South Africa, then back to India. At every stop, an unprepared and naive standards board is bent into shape, filled with local Megatron partners, and the vote is carefully planned. Megatron does best in the far corners, away from the spotlight. The U.S., China, India, Spain, Italy, U.K. fight him off.

It’s a serious challenge to the community, and in this article I want to explain how we fight back. We have no money, no time, no leadership, and yet, facing one of the most powerful lobbying machines ever built, we’re taking it apart and, and we stand a good chance of beating this attempt to hijack the standards process for private corporate gain.

In this article I want to document how we’re doing it. Even if we don’t win this round, there will be others, and the more people understand how to fight Megatron, the more chance we have of winning.

Megatron has made a lot of noise about how OOXML is popular in the FOSS community, and only a few extremists—IBM, for the money, and the FFII, because they’re crazy—are against it. Read the Wikipedia article on OOXML, it’s quite amazing. If you can stand edit wars with Megatron drones, have fun trying to clean it up.

But the real work being done to sanitise and democratise ISO boards around the world is being done by individuals who have no real connection to the FFII. My job, as president of the FFII and back-office NoOOXML campaigner, is to help these people get in touch with each other, and get organised.

Here is how we do it. It’s not secret, it’s how we beat the EU software patents directive in 2005, and how the Community does most of its best work.

I call this the Five Steps to Freedom.

Step one: make it really clear who we’re fighting. Megatron likes to hide behind a veil of yes-men. I wrote an article to explain why Megatron really is a danger to our community, not just a passing annoyance.

Step two: identify the global issues, the fight. Without a fight, people won’t get involved rapidly. We set-up a site, NoOOXML.org, which explains the problems, perhaps a little angrily, but well enough to get tens of thousands of people to blog about it and spread the word.

Step three: get small commitments. NoOOMXL.org has a petition, and about 33,000 people have signed this, from all over the world. Each of these people—you may be one—is a potential ally in the fight. We ask people to translate the petition, to submit news. Each time someone takes a step they become more attached to the campaign.

Step four: organise locally. We do this by inviting signatories to join local groups, coordinated by email lists, managed by one person per country. Because Megatron tries to get into these groups, we’re careful about who joins. These local groups quickly collect together groups, activists, and businesses who care about the issue.

Step five: coordinate globally. We have some key mailing lists where one or two people from each country join and exchange information and ideas. These lists feed the rest of the world, and things start to happen extremely quickly. We then set-up wikis to collect and aggregate knowledge about the campaign.

Megatron has a very hard time understanding why people would give up their time to fight back. No-one volunteers to fight for Megatron; every action they take is horribly expensive. Which is great, because money spent trying to push OOXML means less money for other attacks on freedom.

This is how a Megatron presentation to the Belarus board explained the growing resistance to OOXML from Belarussian campaigners: “In Europe, ’radical’ campaign against OpenXML is coordinated by Benjamin Henrion. Henrion created a website noooxml.org, and called open source sympathisers to ’spam’ National Bodies with similar petitions. He also declared an award of 2500 Euro for best action of pressure to National Body.”

I posted one of the slides on http://www.noooxml.org/about. Megatron’s attempt to “name and shame” my friend Benjamin had an immediate effect on the NoOOXML campaign: email volume doubled, and across the world, people went from angry to fighting mad. Oops.

My own role in this campaign is small, limited to helping people organise themselves. I found the money for that 2,500 Euro “Kayak” prize (which we will offer to the team that did the best work to demolish OOXML in their country). It’s going to be hard to choose a winner for the Kayak prize, because across the world, groups are organising themselves and beating back Megatron despite his size and power. The Community can win, and it usually does. All it takes is a little organisation, and a really good bad guy to fight.

Perhaps we should offer the 2,500 Euros to Megatron himself.

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Cap'n Kernel's picture
Submitted by Cap'n Kernel (not verified) on

Thanks Pieter. I just signed up at noooxml.org.

Cap'n Kernel's picture
Submitted by Cap'n Kernel (not verified) on

To quote from Noooxml.org (http://www.noooxml.org/user-needs):

“OpenXML is designed to represent the existing corpus of documents faithfully, even if that means preserving idiosyncrasies that one might not choose given the luxury of starting from a clean slate. In the ODF design, compatibility with and preservation of existing Office documents were not goals.”

Obviously OOXML is just another attempt by Microsoft to preserve its hegemony. As Noooxml.org adds, “While software has to be backwards compatible ... why should a file format preserve the idiosyncrasies of former non-standardized file formats? ... The only advantage of that "backwards compatibility" lies in the specific internals of a single vendor application which translates into a burden for competitors.”

Backwards compatibility with its proprietary Office file formats is clearly one of the main reasons why Microsoft is pushing OOXML as an alternative to ODF. Since it will be a cold day in Hell before Microsoft opens its Office file formats, the company is going to do its best to get people to adopt OOXML with or without ISO approval. However, the harder Microsoft fights to get its own way with parliaments, public administrations, companies, and the public, the more it risks alienating these groups. I would implore other readers of this article to sign up at Noooxml.org.

Author information

Pieter Hintjens's picture

Biography

Pieter Hintjens is the CEO of iMatix Corporation, and the author of numerous free software tools published by iMatix. He wrote his first GPLed software (Libero) in 1992. He was the main author of the AMQP messaging protocol specification, and iMatix's OpenAMQ messaging software handles around 1bn messages a day for a large bank. He is the past president of the FFII, an association which has fought software patents and defended open standards and competition since 1999. In 2007 he founded the Digital Standards Organization.