Transparently Wrong

At a time when transparency – or lack of it – is in the air, here's another demonstration of how not to do it, this time from the European Union. It concerns the valiant efforts of an Italian MEP, Marco Cappato, who had a few questions for the European Commission about its use of free software:

Answering in May 2008 to an interrogation of mine, the commissary Siim Kallas declared that ‘The Commission is now able to accept and produce documents in the ODF format’ and that ‘The Commission already presented to other European institutions the technical approach to accept and produce ODF documents.

Furthermore, in the ambit of its IDABC program, the Commission is working with the representatives of the member nations for the promotion and simplification of the Open Document Exchange Formats (ODEF). For further information see the site:“.

So I asked to the European Council if it got organized, on the basis of the Commission pulses, for the reception and use of the open formats. In particular, I proposed to:

1. make a study regarding the cost, economic and functional, of the actual dependency from a single software company, comparing it with the eventual savings derived from the adoption of free software, and

2. verify the existence of free software alternatives that could replace the existing proprietary software equipment, investigating on the solutions adopted by other institutional realities?

It turned out that the Commission had, in fact, asked for a study of moving to free software; the only problem was, it didn't want to share it:

“Divulging that information may [prejudice] the protection of commercial interests of Microsoft, since those contracts establish terms and conditions that are specific and privileged for the EU Institutions”.

After much battling, Cappato obtained the study. Since it was actually written in 2005, and based on even earlier work, its conclusion are pretty worthless: they essentially say that there is no cost benefit to switching from Microsoft's products to free, but do note that there are issues of independence involved that politicians might like to consider.

Given that things have moved on so much in the last five years, particularly in terms of office document format standards, I don't want to dwell on those outdated results. Instead, I'd like to highlight the fact that the European Union's bureaucracy fought to keep it unpublished for all that time; worse, the justification was protecting the “commercial interests of Microsoft”.

Readers in the UK will be familiar with this line of reasoning, since it's the one often used by the UK authorities, notably in refusing to release detailed costings of the ID scheme. But it's a totally specious argument: it's generally accepted that tenders need to be made and awarded openly so that anyone can check that things are being done fairly, with no backroom deals. So there is no justification for refusing to provide these kind of details.

You know what they say: if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. If Microsoft – or any other supplier – is making a fair deal with a public body, there is no reason why those figures should not be made, well, public.

Sadly, the European Council's actions show that lack of transparency is just as big a problem in Europe as in the UK Parliament. What is needed in both is a recognition that the public interest trumps any nominal commercial interest of contractors, and that openness for this and all other financial matters should be the rule, not the exception.

Until that happens open source will be competing against incumbents like Microsoft blindfolded, with one hand tied behind its back.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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