The blind leading the blind in Massachusetts

The blind leading the blind in Massachusetts

For the moment, I will ignore the false statement of some that specifying ODF requires one to run OpenOffice. In fact, there are many products which already do so, including Koffice, AbiWord. Anyone that wishes to can produce OpenDocument compatible software, including proprietary software vendors, such as Corel, who have chosen to do so. Microsoft alone insists not that it is unable to do this, but rather that it is unwilling, and it alone demands the state choose its products and its document format instead. In doing so, it is requesting that the state join with it in an illegal business practice.

The principle complaint that some have used is trying to claim that ODF cannot meet state mandates for blind accessibility. As it happens, I am interested in this very issue, under the sometimes active GNU Alexandria project. It is true: work has been slow, but the basic idea was to write a server that could access government documents and web sites in their current form, and then provide a voice rendered representation of said document or web site to a user, either locally through a soundcard, or over the public telephone network as part of an automated government service. GNU Alexandria is licensed under the GNU GPL.

Microsoft claims that its patent license trumps the rights of others to access even their own documents and data, and while it offers its patent encumbered XML schema under a royalty free license, it requires others to both engage in giving their rights to access their own data away as part of it, and specifically denies the right to sublicense their patent. This would legally require the state to exclude using GNU GPL licensed software that may access state generated documents, at least if they are produced and distributed in the Microsoft schema.

Clearly the result would be that less products and services, including those to enable blind accessibility, will be available to the state if it were to choose Microsoft’s XML rather than an open standard like ODF. However, accessibility is just a Trojan horse. There is a deeper and even more disturbing issue in this as well if Microsoft’s patent encumbered XML schema became a mandated state standard.

From the point of view of a software vendor, adopting Microsoft’s XML schema would mean that Microsoft, and not the state, would determine under what terms vendors can offer goods and services or even engage in business with the state. This would be something like Ford saying to Massachusetts that it can also purchase Hondas, or cars from other companies, but only under terms and conditions that are set by and from companies that are approved by Ford.

While governments can specify terms and conditions of sale on their own in a non-discriminatory fashion, to adopt Microsoft’s XML schema would require the state to discriminate against some vendors, and to do so at the request of another. This is in fact illegal. It most probably violates state law, and certainly constitutes a scheme to engage in illegal restraint of trade as per U.S. Code Title 15. Not only would Microsoft’s scheme make the state of Massachusetts itself a party to criminal behavior, but also potentially liable to any civil actions that may result.

Clearly to mandate ODF as a government standard the state of Massachusetts would enable all vendors who may wish to offer interoperable goods and services (including Microsoft). And it would assure that the population, the very citizens of Massachusetts to which the state serves, have a legal and uncontested right to access state documents in any manner they choose without restraint, including blind users by whatever software they may happen to use. To do anything less would represent a failure of the state to serve even itself, or its duty to meet the needs of all its citizens on a fair and equal basis.


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David Sugar's picture


David Sugar is an active maintainer for a number of packages that are part of the GNU project, including GNU Bayonne. He has served as the voluntary chairman of the FSF’s DotGNU steering committee, as a founder and CTO for Open Source Telecomm Corporation, and currently owns and operates Tycho Softworks.