Another desperate attempt to discredit Massachusetts OpenDocument adoption

by Andy Oram

It was on the front page of the Boston Globe newspaper today, and the
lead article on their web site--an investigation that normally would
be buried in the City & Region section of the paper. So you can't
miss it: IT manager Peter Quinn of the Massachusetts state government
is criticized for not fully reporting trips he took during his
promotion of the OpenDocument format.



Microsoft, after a late start (like most technology companies) has
poured millions into lobbying over the past decade. Rumors even
suggest that several government IT managers who dared to consider
open-source alternatives to Microsoft heard promptly from both the
company and their own bosses to pull back. So it would be highly
gratifying to Microsoft and those trying to maintain the status quo if
someone could turn the tables and try to smear the proponents of open
source and open standards with similar influence.



Because the whole thrust of choosing an open document standard is to
improve transparency in government, one could hardly find a cleverer
complaint than to accuse the proponents of lack of transparency.



A nice side effect of the controversy is to intimidate government
staff and punish them for doing what they should be doing: going out
into public forums and exchanging ideas with the communities affected
by their decisions. Especially in a major paradigm shift, and
especially when dealing with open standards that have far-flung
communities.



People opposing change have claimed that moving to an open standard would raise
costs, playing up the obvious observation that any investment in the
future requires a temporary increase in short-term expenditures. Then
representatives for the disabled raised the concern that tools
providing the OpenDocument format don't support all the accessibility
options that Microsoft Office contains; this gap is being addressed
surprisingly fast.



Pamela Jones of groklaw pointed out that representatives for the
disabled were demonstrating an unseemly helplessness in raising their
complaint. Because several open-source tools support OpenDocument,
anyone who wants accessibility added can pay someone to do the job
rather than complaining about it.



So they're running out of FUD, and it became time to shoot the
messenger. The Boston Globe article is short on details--suggesting
that there isn't much legal basis for the whole complaint to start
with--but the argument goes like this; state officials have to receive
written authorization for trips paid by outsiders, and have to give a
detailed estimate of the costs of travel. Quinn, as director of IT for
the state government, made a dozen trips during the last two years,
receiving written authorization for some. It is not clear whether he
received verbal authorization or written authorization for the others.
He paid for some trips himself and accepted payment from the
conference sponsors, duly reporting these payments.



Now someone in state government is claiming Quinn should have listed
all the companies that sponsored the conferences, to allay fears that
these companies were trying to gain underhanded influence. By this
standard, a speaker who gets free admission to a conference such as
LinuxWorld Expo or O'Reilly's Open Source conference would have to
list that his trip was paid for by Intel, Sun, Dell, and any other of
the one or two dozen companies listed as sponsors--even Microsoft!



Yes, companies are involved in open source. Contrary to the critics,
open source does create markets, and companies will rush in to make
money there. So the publicity around this investigation may
inadvertently weaken another form of anti-open source FUD.



Attending a conference, however, does not necessarily mean one comes
in contact with a company representative. Usually, to actually
interact with that company, an attendee has to take the deliberate
step of arranging a meeting; otherwise he's unlikely even to get a
demo at a booth. A speaker at a conference is likely to come in,
deliver a speech, and leave without ever seeing a company
representative.



I managed to reach Quinn's former boss, Eric Kriss, which the Globe
did not. (Choosing to break a story over Thanksgiving weekend, when
protagonists are on vacation and government offices that could answer
questions are closed, definitely does not contribute to clarity.)



Kriss, whom I know because he's contacted me with a book idea earlier,
pointed out that:





  • Most of Quinn's trips occurred after Massachusetts made the decision
    to adopt OpenDocument. There is no possibility that the trips would
    influence the decision that had already been made.



  • While some two-way communication occurs at any conference--and is
    beneficial to the public--the primary purpose of the trips were to let
    Massachusetts government tell the rest of the world what it was doing.



  • Far from being junkets, these trips were normally squeezed in on
    weekends around his normal duties and represented a contribution of
    his free time to the community.





I'm not going to express an opinion on the law, which is none of my
business, particularly because I err on the side of supporting more
information rather than less. Lapses in authorization and reporting
should be investigated by the state, and the Globe should report the
investigations. But it seems that their fundamental misunderstanding of
the dynamics of technical conferences has threatened to create an
unwarranted hysteria. Sponsorship of a technical conference does not
mean the sponsor is paying the speakers, or has any influence over
them.



What we're left seeing is a lot of scurrying to transform an important
issue of government documentation into a spurious issue of staff
documentation, with publicity flourishes to warn that anyone trying to
open up government has to be ready for every kind of backlash.


6 Comments

tadelste
2005-11-26 09:32:37
Dirty tricks. Who do you think turned the Globe onto this?
http://digg.com/linux_unix/Microsoft_s_latest_attempt_to_kill_OpenDocument_adoption
tadelste
2005-11-26 09:33:26
Dirty tricks. Who do you think turned the Globe onto this?
This mornings news story instigated by the Boston Globe against Peter Quinn is pure slime. They're investigating him for going to some conferences. The amounts are peanuts. This isn't a Tom DeLay trip to Scotland's Golf Course for $500,000 where a Preston Gates and Ellis credit card receipt shows payment of the hotel and where the Microsoft lobbyist arranged the travel itinery.


This is dirty.


Digg Andy's story story. Don't let this slip through on a holiday.

carlaschroder
2005-11-26 12:53:12
how dirty does Microsoft have to get...
..before the MS fanbois finally get it?


Or perhaps they approve?

adamsj
2005-11-27 06:38:41
What's an appropriate standard of disclosure?
First off, I agree this is not a story about corruption in high places or big-tech companies slipping civil servants junkets in exchange for favorable actions, as it took me less than five minutes to pick just one of the conferences Peter Quinn attended, namely this one (https://www.nascio.org/events/2004MidyearConference/) , a three-day event at which Quinn did a one-day fly-in to see that Microsoft is, as always, among the sponsors.


Here's a different one (http://www.proscongress.com/) , and here it's harder to see what happened. There's no sponsor list up on the site--apparently, this was sponsored by one company, Altamente.com, Inc. (http://www.altamente.com/) . Do you know exactly who they are? Neither do I. I don't think it's unreasonable, either for a public agency or for the press, to seek further details about the sponsorship of this conference.


(Here's a contrafactual to chew on: What if Altamente were a Microsoft sock puppet? How would you feel then?)


Anyway, this is a political problem for Quinn and the Romney administration. Presumably they'll know how to fight it.


Here's a better question:


What's an appropriate standard of disclosure for attendence at a sponsored conference? Suppose Conference A is an O'Reilly event, run primarily by them but with sponsor money kicked in for a chunk of the events. Let's say Conference B is put on by a professional group, with sponsor money also kicked in to pay for the show. Let's let Conference C over here be put on by a lobbying group that has one real client: Pick your favorite villain--Microsoft, IBM, Intel, SBC, WhateverCorp.


Now: What's the right thing to tell your boss?


"Well, that first one, the company running it has only an indirect interest in the products and technologies being discussed. They get sponsorships from competing companies, so it's not really a dog-and-pony show.


"That second one? Oh, that's a professional organization. They make a point of playing the various vendors off each other. The organization serves the interests of the members, you know--I get good information there.


"Now, the third one--that turned out to be nothing but a free trip somewhere nice paid for on the quiet by WhateverCorp."


How, exactly, can you tell the difference in the third case between a bribe and a legitimate trip? It could be a completely legitimate trip, you know--the simple appearance of impropriety doesn't mean something is really inappropriate.


From a great distance, it looks to me like Peter Quinn became a speaker in demand and in the rush got lazy with his paperwork--exactly the sort of thing that, in large organizations, causes you the most grief, and for good reason.


There are a lot of ways for vendors to effectively bribe responsible individuals, mostly by making illegitimate expenditures appear legitimate. The protection against this type of bribery is disclosure.


The flip side of disclosure is that when it's insufficient (and there's the one place where Quinn can be faulted) it lends itself to the appearance of impropriety. It's a bit paradoxical, but disclosure is usually safest when it's most aggressive.


So: What's the appropriate standard of disclosure when a public official is sponsored to attend an event?


If a company pays a sponsorship fee of, say ten percent of conference expenses? Five percent? Above a certain dollar figure? What if they pay the public official's expenses? What if they kick in an honorarium?


Here's a really awful thought:


What if the company has enough pull to get the person invited, and pay for his talk through the sponsoring organization, and the person doesn't know that's how he got the gig? What if the sponsor is building a tame expert via sponsoring his talks?


There's lots of room for abuse. Disclosure is appropriate. What's a fair standard?

bobc
2005-11-30 07:20:45
What a freakin joke.
"...any investment in the future requires a temporary increase in short-term expenditures."


This isn't FUD. The fact is this insane proposal would effect tens of thousands of users and tens of thousands of businesses in and out of the state of Massachusetts. And either is the problem with disabled users both in business and in the general public. Many of accessibility tools are only available on Windows and through the use of Microsoft Office. To dimiss it by saying that users can "pay someone to do the job rather than complaining about it", shows the increasing bigotry of an Open Source movement blinded by ideology.


This has got to be one the most poorly thought about proposals in the annals of computing. What a freakin joke.

ccsaxton
2005-12-02 09:29:31
What a freakin joke.
so...

  • using a single vendor none standard format for all government documents is a good idea?


Your arguments are floored and it is not forcing tens of thousands of people to be thrown into the dark. I do agree that it is going to effect tens of thousands of people but it is going to do it for the good of everyone not for the worse


Do you really think that all supporting vendors (IBM, SUN, NOVELL...the list is endless) are so stupid as to not build in support for the disabled? Do you think that only Microsoft can do this kind of ohh... really difficult development?


Do you think that keeping a single none standard vendor solution is going to be the cheapest solution in the long run...cutting out all competition around the entire globe?


So your proposal will basically mean that everyone will continue to pay out the price hike for a single vendor technology. You haven't a clue!!