UK Government u-turns on open standards policy - and look who's behind it?

UK Government u-turns on open standards policy - and look who's behind it?


When the coalition UK government was formed following the last general election there was some guarded optimism among those who support open standards (many of whom also support the ideals of free software). This was based on pre-election rhetoric from the two parties that formed the coalition in 2010. Less than a year later stories hit the headlines of a new open standards procurement policy. Again those of us who have been in this battle long enough took a reasonable measure of salt with this announcement but still here in black and white was a UK Government policy stating that:

"When purchasing software, ICT infrastructure, ICT security and other ICT goods and services, Cabinet Office recommends that Government departments should wherever possible deploy open standards in their procurement specifications"

And what's more is that it came with a pretty decent defnition of open standards. The UK had turned a corner - or so we thought.

Betrayal

In what one commentator is rightfully calling a betrayal, the UK Government withdrew this policy. What is worse (but hardly surprising) is that it seems this decision has been made following lobbying by the British Software Alliance (made up of proprietary software companies of course) and (naturally) Microsoft the lobbying was also backed by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. The lobbyists went to town with what quite frankly appear to be weasel words, professing agreement with the policy of adopting open standrds but then demanding a rewording on what constitutes open to include - you guessed it - standards that stretch the meaning to extremes.

To quote one report on the issue:

"Microsoft said it supported the aims of UK open standards policy - specifically that government systems should be interoperable, that it should be possible for government to re-use purchased software components, and that government should not be "locked-in" to using particular technologies ... but it opposed the Cabinet Office office definition of an open standard. It said the definition of open standards adopted in the government ICT strategy would hamper innovation and restrict "freedom of choice for citizens". It said the government should officially adopt standards only under terms defined as Reasonable and Non-discriminatory (RAND). It referred to this as FRAND (Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory). This would permit patent holders to claim royalties from anyone trying to implement the standard." (emphasis mine)

It is at times like this I recall the Free Software Foundation's opposition to the use of the term Open Source. Just as with "Open Standard" it is way to open to interpretation.

So once again the UK Government falls behind the pack in terms of freedom, transparency and accessibility for its citizens. This is not a party-political thing by the way - it's a politician thing. In the UK there has been a backlash lately over the influence that the media (in particular the print media "barons") has over government policy. Isn't it about time the same spotlight was cast upon the influence that big business (many of them not British) have over government policy as well?

I find it saddening, disheartening and somewhat ironic that the one part of the software industry that is continuing to provide real innovation and progress is being locked out of Whitehall because of lobbying by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills!

My thanks to Glyn Moody and Mark Ballard for bringing this issue to the fore.

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Biography

Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and Identi.ca.