March 4, 2008

Microsoft influencing partner NGOs to support OOXML in India

Author: Mayank Sharma

Microsoft is encouraging its business partners to promote its Office Open XML specification (OOXML) to the Indian Bureau of Standards (BIS) and Ministry of IT. This move has incensed supporters of the rival OpenDocument Format (ODF) who fear that the "soft" Indian state may not be able to stand up to Microsoft pressure tactics.

Open Source Initiative (OSI) board member Raj Mathur claims to have a copy of the Microsoft letter to NGOs. "Microsoft has 'persuaded' several non-profit organizations," Mathur writes, "to bombard the Indian IT Secretary and the Additional Director General of the Bureau of Indian Standards with letters supporting its OOXML proposal."

Mathur describes the letters as "form letters" due to their template-like nature. "As per our discussion," the letter says, "please find attached the draft letters -- please cut/edit/ delete and change it any which way you find useful. Also attached is the list of NGOs who have sent the letters. And attached is also a document that details wht [sic] this debate is all about. Look forward to hear from you in this regard. In case you decide to send the letters, can you please send me a scan of the singed [sic] letters that you send out. Thanks this will help me track the process."

The letters themselves ask the NGOs to paraphrase "We support OXML [sic] as a standard that encourages multiplicity of choice and interoperability giving us the ultimate consumer the choice. [The NGO] recognizes that multiple standards are good for the economy and also for technical innovation and progress in the country, especially for smaller organizations like us, who require choice and innovation." After advising the NGO to write about their work, the Microsoft letters asks them to paraphrase "[The NGO] also supports OXML as this does not have any financial implications thus releasing our resources for welfare and development of society."

In a telephone interview, Venkatesh Hariharan, cofounder of the Open Source Foundation of India, says he doesn't blame the NGOs for sending the letters, "because they probably don't know what they are supporting." Mathur is of the same opinion and is interested in finding out "... how much they [the NGOs] really know about OOXML and open standards."

Microsoft works with several NGOs in India via its Project Jyoti program. None of the NGOs listed on the Project Jyoti Web site responded to email queries regarding the letters.

"India is a soft state," says Hariharan. "These kinds of unethical practices are going unchecked. [It's] very sad to see NGOs being misused for this kind of a process."

When contacted, Microsoft India's head for corporate communications, Meenu Handa, did not directly answer why the NGOs have been asked to endorse OOXML when they might not fully comprehend the issues involved. Handa instead gave us background on the Project Jyoti program and said that Microsoft has partnered with 13 NGOs with "cash and software grants amounting to only Rs37.5 crores (approx $9.3 million US)."

"The NGOs," Handa says, "represent an important section of society. It is for this reason that their views were sought to be represented on the committee formed by Bureau of India Standards (BIS) on the issue of [Office] Open XML. As an important stakeholder in this process, we have sought their opinion and support on the issue. Participating in the stewardship of what could become one of the world's most widely used document formats is an issue which the community is deeply interested in, as it is centered around customer choice and innovation. It is one point of view. There are others, I am sure.

"The process put in place by ISO to consider OOXML in the global library of standards is designed to enable national bodies from sovereign nations to participate in the review and improvement of standards deemed to be beneficial to the global IT industry and its users. [Office] Open XML is a strong example of that.

"I am sure you are also aware that the number of NGOs who have expressed their voluntary support on [Office] Open XML far exceeds the program partners we have for Project Jyoti. The decision to send a letter of support was made by each individual organization basis [sic] its own merit. Likewise, many of our partners also chose not to voice their opinion."

The NGOs aren't the only Microsoft partners to be receiving letters of support for the company. Last month, a respected Indian industry body, The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), issued a press statement "in public interest" recommending standardization of OOXML. According to Hariharan when questioned by a journalist, ASSOCHAM admitted to supporting Microsoft because the company is a member of the association.

Hariharan is peeved with ASSOCHAM because it did not consult any of the bodies campaigning for open standards in India. "I think FICCI had also got a request [from Microsoft]," says Hariharan, "and they circulated that among the members and they got opinion from IBM. And today how difficult is it to check up on an issue?"

This isn't the first time Microsoft has tried to influence its partners. Last year in Sweden the company offered extra "marketing contributions" to its business partners to encourage them to vote for OOXML. The trick worked, but the "yes" vote was later declared invalid. Following on the heels of the record antitrust fine, the European Union is now looking into Microsoft's activities in gaining approval for its OOXML format.

"India has not woken up politically," Hariharan says, "to the impact of [selecting the right standard]. So while we are discussing OOXML at a technical level, the issue is far deeper than that. Many people now say that holding of patents on standards is a non-tariff barrier to trade."

The Microsoft letters to the NGO are a wake-up call for groups rooting for open standards in India. "We'll talk to all the policy makers we know of," Hariharan says, "because these kind of proprietary standards are a tax on human communication and don't add any value to the local economy. And especially when there are multiple alternatives, we see no reason why India should compromise."

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