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01.13.08

Food for Thought: How Proprietary Silverlight and OOXML Stifle or Eliminate Open Access

Posted in America, DRM, Europe, Finance, Formats, FUD, Microsoft, Open XML, Vista, Windows at 6:08 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Open access without open formats is no longer open access

Recently, several fiasco-level incidents were discussed which involve governments putting public assets and services in the hands of outsourced professionals, who then misuse their degree of power and seemingly-unrestricted budgets. Many possible dangers become more concrete if this route is actually taken. Data belonging to a nation can be warped to become partially controlled by private companies.

“While governments ought to ensure all documents are stored in the format that lasts, the same general principles should apply to delivery of information.”At risk of going further out of focus, consider the relationship between digital preservation, which shapes and serves (ODF's purposes (it is also ODF’s upper hand and among its raison d’être) and open access — an issue whose significance is better realised as the Internet continues to expand. While governments ought to ensure all documents are stored in the format that lasts, the same general principles should apply to delivery of information. In Greece, such things are already being demanded.

Greek citizens, but also citizens of other countries, we jointly sign this text on the occasion of ERT’s choice to distribute its audiovisual archive non-freely to the public. Our aim and ambition is to publicize our propositions so that they become the starting point of an open dialog among the Greek society, the European and global public audience and to signal the revision of backward policies and the creation of common political wealth.

Few days ago, the ERT administration presented the beginning of the availability, only via Internet streaming, of a part of its audiovisual archive. This move constitutes an important first step, which, however, in our opinion, is tarnished by the fact that the public availability of the archive is not made free, although the Greek and European citizens have paid their money to make the production and digitization of the archive feasible.

Here is another example of an invaluable national asset. It received some timely coverage in the New York Times last week [via Glyn Moody].

What is Magna Carta worth? Exactly $21,321,000. We know because that’s what it fetched in a fair public auction at Sotheby’s in New York just before Christmas. Twenty-one million is, by far, the most ever paid for a page of text, and therein lies a paradox: Information is now cheaper than ever and also more expensive.

OOXML is badThe price of information and the price of tools that enable access to this information are separate. The former is related to the open access debate and the latter — to open standards. By neglecting to consider one of the two, governments can essentially forbid rather than inhibit access to assets owned by people. This is — needless to say — rather absurd and even outrageous.

In the remainder of this item, many examples will be given with particular emphasis on English-speaking countries (the UK and the US actually), which will also be last to embrace Free software properly, due to solidarity perhaps.

I was once told by a reliable source about Gordon Brown allowing his nation to be locked down by SharePoint. This almost immediately led to loss of trust and brought back memories of the Prime Minister’s affiliations (he is one of those other Bilderbergers, along with Tony Blair). The British Library, BECTA, National Archives and the BBC, for instance, either have ‘Trojan horses’ (individuals from Microsoft) or they are quite close to that whole ecosystem. As actual examples, consider some of the following:

British Library

Looking at the past year, here is what one might find. Books are being digitised, but given the nature of this public library, why the branding?

Digitised publications will be accessible in two ways -initially through Microsoft’s Live Search Books and then via the Library’s website.

Now, watch this. [expired, from Associated Press]

Now the British Library is appealing to ordinary Britons for their e-mails, saying it wants to create a snapshot of British life in 2007.

[...]

The e-mails will be collated and indexed by Microsoft Corp., which has previously partnered with the library to digitize books from its archive, and they will be available to researchers before the year’s end.

Once again you have to wonder why the Library’s great financial resources are unable to facilitate independent thinking and implementation. Was Free software considered at all? Was there a tender? How was procurement — if any was needed at all — actually done?

What about the Library’s DRM concerns? Does it know about Microsoft’s DRM affinity?

In a manifesto released on Monday at the Labor Party Conference in Manchester, the United Kingdom’s national library warned that the country’s traditional copyright law needs to be extended to fully recognize digital content.

“Unless there is a serious updating of copyright law to recognize the changing technological environment, the law becomes an ass,” Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the British Library, told ZDNet UK.

To make matters even worse, watch how the Library falls for a scam that is all about Windows Vista and XAML.

Microsoft and the British Library have digitised two of Leonardo da Vincis’ notebooks.

[...]

The British Library has created an updated version of its application called “Turning the Pages” which allows people to browse parts of its 150 million piece collection via a web browser. We heard how this works better using Vista.

BBC

This fiasco has actually been covered here on several occasions. The FSF focuses on just one aspect of the many problems in the BBC, which seems to have a dual commitment (to the public and to its close partners Siemens and Microsoft).

Today the BBC made it official — they have been corrupted by Microsoft. With today’s launch of the iPlayer, the BBC Trust has failed in its most basic of duties and handed over to Microsoft sole control of the on-line distribution of BBC programming. From today, you will need to own a Microsoft operating system to view BBC programming on the web. This is akin to saying you must own a Sony TV set to watch BBC TV. And you must accept the Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) that the iPlayer imposes. You simply cannot be allowed to be in control of your computer according to the BBC.

(Britain’s) National Archives

This is one of the most astonishing examples you will find. Adam Farquhar is the Head of eArchitecture at the British Library and he is also serving Microsoft's OOXML. Microsoft and National Archives even issue joint press releases. Are they really trying to hand people a smoking gun along with a pair of handcuffs? And check our their publicity stunt in the BBC. The whole charade seems to be circular.

She was speaking at the launch of a partnership with Microsoft to ensure the Archives could read old formats.

Here is what Mr. Newton (of Alfresco in the UK) has to say about some of this:

With OOXML and XPS, Microsoft has chosen to not work with existing standards, but to create new ones, as they have in their recent announcement on Web3S instead of working with the rest of the industry on the Atom Publishing Protocol. In the case of OOXML, this is a logical move on Microsoft’s part, since it is an evolution of Microsoft’s XML strategy started with the Microsoft Office 2003 version and ODF will be a technology diversion from that strategy. With Microsoft controlling 90% of the office productivity tools market and OOXML being the default file format for Microsoft Office 2007, OOXML is likely to be widely-used.

Britain’s National Health Service (NHS)

One interesting tale is the huge disaster that collaborations in the NHS have been. The contract (or lease) involving iSoft more or less makes the NHS dependent on Microsoft — by proxy.

To give you a rough idea of the scale of this disaster in a medium-sized nation, consider some financial figures:

NHS computer boss failed IT exams

Mary Granger is amazed that her son was put in charge of a £20bn project to transform the NHS’s computer system. She is less surprised that his ‘Connecting for Health’ project is over-budget, behind schedule and threatening to become the biggest IT disaster in history.

Another example:

After months of negotiations, Accenture handed contracts worth £2bn over to rival Computer Sciences Corporation after getting paid just £110m for spending a third of the allotted 10 years on the job. Its hand had been forced by losses of $450m it was set to make on the deal this year.

Now, watch who was partly behind this:

Microsoft is one of the key technology firms in the £6.2 billion NHS IT programme. It is working particularly closely with iSOFT…

Daringly enough, with Free software out there, some actually claim ‘savings’.

NHS National Services Scotland forecasts it will save up to £8m over three years from a new procurement deal with Microsoft

Needless to say, the whole project ended up as a total disaster of proportions even greater than that of the BBC’s media unit. They too started looking at alternatives (think about the BBC turning to Adobe Flash).

The government’s vision of an integrated computer system for the NHS is coming apart at the seams as NHS trusts are to start looking for alternative IT suppliers, The Guardian reports.

To make matters worse, with Microsoft software in healthcare, see what people ended up coping with (living with or dying with).

“Very often they are not major incidents as such, but could be caused when a patient administration system is running slow or there may be problems with the local network. The severity level is attributed by the user and this is subsequently very often down graded or amended.”

Many of the incidents that have been reported by CfH include failure of the systems used by surgeons to see X-ray pictures on a computer screen in wards and operating theatres. On some occasions the system is believed to have crashed during an operation, forcing surgeons to suspend the procedure while a hard copy of the X-ray is found.

Never bet your life on it.

Partners and AstroTurfing in Great Britain?

The OOXML game does not only come to government-funded establishments. It goes further and right into businesses. Watch the response to Microsoft’s attempt to use its partners as pro-OOXML pawns.

The petition is an attempt to make it appear that Open XML has “pseudo-grassroots” support, argues Mark Taylor, the founder of the Open Source Consortium.

At this later stage, one ought to recall those incidents of Microsoft bribery in Sweden and elsewhere. There is some more information about it here, in case context is missing from the above.

Microsoft is calling on the Great British public to join its campaign to get the XML Office format adopted as an international standard.

[...]

It is not clear if the UK is an opponent. However, a representative of fellow member the Bureau of Indian Standards recently reportedly complained to the IndiaTime.com over Microsoft’s decision to dump 6,000 pages of documentation on them.

Let’s move over to the States and find the same type of abuse, as observed last just 4 days ago.

Library of Congress and the United States

What on earth is this? [via Andy Updegrove]

Microsoft to provide virtual access to Library of Congress

[...]

Interactive presentation software for kiosks will run on Windows Vista and its Web equivalent, built using Microsoft Silverlight. The project will also use Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 Web content management software.

“Web equivalent,” says this article. Does that sound like lock-in or what? It’s the ‘next-generation ActiveX’ for all it seems. It’s another attempt to exert power, but what makes this one rather obnoxious is the fact that public assets get misused in the process. They are being turned against the public.

For similar reasons, by the way, Microsoft is said to have given free facilities to store vital medical data. It is making people’s lives dependent on Microsoft’s success. This way, as Silicon Graphics and its bankruptcy protection have taught the industry, Microsoft might receive government support at times of trouble. Microsoft holds the key that enables access to data.

The World’s Publications

A few months ago, Elsevier said that the future is open.

Two senior publishers have departed Elsevier and joined rival Biomed Central, placing their bets on an open access future for scientific research.

One ought to worry, however, after last week’s large acquisition by Microsoft. Will there ever will open access at Elsevier? Will open standards be involved as well? A couple of days ago, Glyn Moody warned that Microsoft and Elsevier are now partners. He drew a prophetic comparison a year and a half beforehand. What will this all mean when it comes to formats?

Open Access and Free Software to the Rescue

The remainder of this long post ought to illustrate the importance of open access, which is worthless unless you have open standards like ODF and even PDF. Here is an article which explains the symbiotic relationship between Free software and Open Access.

Free and open source software (FOSS) has roots in the ideals of academic freedom and the unimpeded exchange of information. In the last five years, the concepts have come full circle, with FOSS serving as a model for Open Access (OA), a movement within academia to promote unrestricted access to scholarly material for both researchers and the general public.

It all comes to show and address some very serious issues. Consider the following two articles from the past two months. The first is about taxpayers being refused access to studies that they fund.

“Cancer patients seeking information on new treatments or parents searching for the latest on childhood development issues were often denied access to the research they indirectly fund through their taxes”

The second shows the very cheeky approach some publications have adopted.

The journal wishes to charge me 48 USD to:

  • USE MY OWN ARTICLE
  • ON WHICH I HOLD COPYRIGHT
  • FOR NON-COMMERCIAL PURPOSES (TEACHING)

The journal is therefore

  • SELLING MY INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
  • WITHOUT MY PERMISSION
  • AGAINST THE TERMS OF THE LICENCE (NO COMMERCIAL USE)

I am lost for words…

This issue of permitting nothing to be free and attempting to charge money for anything conceivable is dissected in the following good writeup from Jeremy Alison (of Samba fame).

I was down there to give a talk on “Open Source Business Models” for a conference. Also represented were entertainment industry lawyers, “Big Telecom” management, and a smattering of software people. Microsoft was there of course. You can’t hold a church fete with “Open Source” on the banner these days without Microsoft turning up and requesting representation. At least we also had Bruce Perens on our side to help make up the balance. The venue eas an unbelievably expensive hotel. Even though I was on expenses I balked at asking the company to pay for a room there and found something cheaper (not by much) a few miles down the road.

Here Come the Dark Forces

Sharing of information is a wonderful thing, is it not? Who could possibly deny access to information that promotes increased productivity? Moreover, who would prevent those that wish to make their own information and art available for free? Some people would.

As I’ve noted before, I’m something of a connoisseur of FUD, and I really like coming across new examples. Here’s one, directed at the burgeoning open access movement, which wants to make publicly-paid for scientific papers freely available…

Let’s not forget the music industry, which fears the idea of (legally) free distribution of art.

The music industry has reacted with outrage to the government’s rejection of pleas to extend the period musicians get royalties from their tracks beyond the current 50 years.

Increasingly, the same goes for video and other forms of art.

Success Stories

Despite all these ills of society, the so-called ‘open access movement’ is gradually winning. It defeats those who try to bury it. Example wins from the last year:

1. Libraries Defend Open Access

In an open letter last month, Rockefeller University Press castigated the publishers’ sock-puppet outfit, PRISM, for using distorting rhetoric in a coordinated PR attack on open access. N

2. ‘The New York Times’ drops online subscription service

The New York Times has finally given up on the Web-subscription model, announcing Monday that the newspaper’s online site will no longer charge for any content.

3. News Corp undecided on making WSJ.com free

“It would be a very expensive thing to do in the short term,” Murdoch told analysts on a telephone conference call to discuss News Corp’s quarterly earnings. “In the long term, it may be a wonderful thing to do, but we’re looking at it very closely.”

4. A Quest to Get More Court Rulings Online, and Free

The domination of two legal research services over the publication of federal and state court decisions is being challenged by an Internet gadfly who has embarked on an ambitious project to make more than 10 million pages of case law available free online.

5. Announcing the Open Library

Early this year, when I left my job at Wired Digital, I thought I could look forward to months of lounging around San Francisco, reading books on the beach and drinking fine champagne and eating foie gras. Then I got a phone call. Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive was thinking of pursuing a project that I’d been trying to do literally for years.

[...]

So today I’m extraordinarily proud to announce the Open Library project. Our goal is to build the world’s greatest library,

6. Berkman Center and CALI Partner to Create New Legal Education Resource

“We are looking forward to renewing a fruitful relationship with Harvard Law School through the Legal Education Commons project, which will provide innovative tools and access to open-licensed course materials to our more than 200 member law schools” said CALI Executive Director John Mayer.

7. Wikipedia Founder Joins EC Open Access Campaign

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said he signed a petition calling on the European Commission to give the public open access to taxpayer-funded scientific research because it was “simple and obvious” that the public should have access to research they had funded. “Public money should result in public benefit,” he added.

8. Google Custom Search

Guha was able to help me understand the significance of the recent announcement with the Hewlett Foundation of the Open Educational Resources search portal.

[...]

For example, a MIT implementation of the OE Search portal could choose to boost mit.edu sites, providing higher visibility for MIT’s OpenCourseWare offerings.

9. Public access to NIH research made law

President Bush has signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2007 (H.R. 2764), which includes a provision directing the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to provide the public with open online access to findings from its funded research. This is the first time the U.S. government has mandated public access to research funded by a major agency.

With open access seemingly inevitable, the things to combat are censorship, increased traffic shaping, closed formats, patent-encumbered formats, and platform-exclusive formats. DRM-laden information is another time bomb, especially lacking standards and interoperability, with which the principles of DRM are somewhat incompatible.

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