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Massachusetts: The ODF Battle Gets Ugly
Thursday, November 17 2005 @ 02:21 PM EST

Does it get any uglier than what we are witnessing in Massachusetts? Serial killers are worse, I grant you. But watching the politicos in Massachusetts try to kill off OpenDocument Format is surely Top Ten ugly.

Guess what they are now trying? I'll refer you to Andy Updegrove's blog, where he gives us the latest icky chapter. It seems opponents of ODF have come up with a new amendment to a new bill, since they couldn't get S 2256 passed this session, and ODF has become a political football in an old-fashioned power play. Think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Let's follow the bouncing ball.

Updegrove:

That brings us up to today, when a new amendment was introduced by Senator Michael W. Morrissey in lieu of the amendment he had earlier submitted. I am told by what I believe to be a reliable source that the swap was at the suggestion of Secretary Galvin, because the first version was "slanted too heavily in favor of the Governor." And the new amendment? It shifts power dramatically, and I bet you can guess in whose direction it shifts.

Here's a summary of what the new amendment would do in contrast to the original:

1) Reduces the number of appointees given to the Governor from 4 to 2

2) Designates the CIO of ITD as a permanent appointee to the Task Force

3) Eliminates the appointees by the State Treasurer and State Auditor

4) Mandates that the Supervisor of Public Records (who reports to the Secretary of State) serve as Chair of the Task Force; previous version had the Chair elected by the appointees

5) Mandates that the State Archivist (also reports to the Secretary of State) serve as Secretary of the Task Force

6) Emphasizes that no agency, department or municipality shall adopt technology policy, practices or standards without a majority vote of the Task Force; previous version listed only executive branch agencies or departments as subject to the decisions of the Task Force
[You can find the full text of the new amendment at the end of this post]

As you can see, with the exception of making the state CIO a permanent member of a 7-person task force, all other changes solidly increase the power of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, and even expand the power of the task force beyond that originally contemplated by the ITD's proposal.

In fact, the new amendment enables exactly the type of situation that the anti-ODF FUDists had claimed Quinn was out to require, but in fact was not: requiring that citizens of the Commonwealth could only interrelate with their own government if they owned software that supported a standard mandated by public officials.

Can you guess what these movers and shakers expect that standard should be? After reading the transcript of the hearing, I believe I can. Can they get away with it and kill off ODF? I can't see how. Maybe in a movie about the Mob. But this is the Internet age. Back-room deals end up headlines, and that tends to undermine effectiveness. About all I can see that Microsoft can get out of these machinations is a black eye. The overarching message is that if you don't want to use their software, you'll be sat on by goons or the political equivalent. Frankly, that doesn't make me want to use their software. This is America, is it not?

Meanwhile, on the disabilities front, do read David Berlind's blog on his interaction with Curtis Chong, president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science, who ends up saying he'd be happy to support ODF if his needs are met. That is the headline. Chong thinks the 2007 deadline is unrealistic, but if there is one thing I feel I can say with confidence from all I know and am hearing, it's that the deadline will be met. But even if it wasn't, when Massachusetts announced their choice of ODF, they stated that if the disabled needed to stay with Microsoft products because of third-party solutions designed for accessibility, they could until a better solution was available. So what is the issue? Just politics, really.

Not that Microsoft is lifting a finger to help the disabled, by the way. Let's be real. They could solve the issue for the disabled by just announcing that Microsoft will support ODF. ODF is a standard, so proprietary software can and does support it. It's not just Open Source that can support it.

Because Microsoft isn't willing to support ODF, or haven't to date, it's clear to me they don't care a bit about the disabled, and are happy to use them for their own business advantage.

They don't, as Berlind points out in his letter to Chong, write disability software like JAWS, and in fact they hinder its functionality. Berlind pointedly asks Chong why no representative for the disabled at the hearing mentioned the problems the disabled have with Microsoft's software:

A few of your points would have been very relevant and I'm certain that those who spoke at the hearing were aware of them. For example, the point you [are] making about the precarious balance that exists between the specialized accessibility software and Microsoft Office was never mentioned. Nor was the fact that every time Microsoft upgrades it's software, the accessibility software must be completely re-engineered to keep up. I'm sure that each time the cat catches its tail, only to have the tail eventually slip away, that it's the work of a few heroic people that catch the tail again. But isn't there a point at which the tail catchers realize that this is a futile effort that stands in the way of true innovation in accessibility? I've been a technology journalist for 15 years now. In that time, it didn't matter who the vendor was: if a vendor came out with a product that wasn't backwards compatible with the ones before it, they were hammered out of the market. The fact that Microsoft keeps breaking backward compatibility and forcing heroic developers to creatively exploit both documented and undocumented interfaces suggests to me that the company hasn't looked at continuity in accessibility as a problem that it's responsible for solving.

What I don't think the disabled have clued in on yet is that with ODF, they can just hire someone to code what they need. No. Really. That's the beauty of it. You don't need to beg Microsoft or third-party companies to please write what you need. You can hire a programmer and do it yourself. In this case, they don't even need to. Some of the most powerful sofware companies in the world have dedicated resources to the task. But the power of open standards and Open Source (note they are not the same thing, but they are both desirable) is that you are never stuck or dependent on any vendor. Think about it.

Another development: Linda Hamel, General Counsel for ITD, has sent the Senate a brief [PDF], answering the legal questions Senator Marc Pacheco asked at the hearing on October 31. Here's the summary from the brief.

II SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a 23 billion dollar enterprise that relies increasingly on the creation and use of electronic records. The majority of employees of that enterprise work in the Executive Department. ITD is the central agency assigned authority over the Executive Department’s use and acquisition of information technology. ITD issued the latest version of its Information Technology architecture plan, known as the “Enterprise Technical Reference Model Version 3.5” or “ETRM 3.5”, on September 21, 2005. ETRM 3.5 contained a requirement that as of a certain date all documents created within the Executive Department be created in a version of the reference schema for Extensible Markup Language (XML) known as the Open Document Format 1.0, an industry standard created through an open process and licensed under minimally restrictive terms. The standard, which has been adopted by the Library of Congress for electronic record preservation, and is being used by the National Archive and Records Administration in their Electronic Records Archive project, was adopted after a lengthy process conducted by ITD involving legal research, discussions with information technology experts, and an informal notice and comment process involving all three branches of state government and every Executive Department agency.

In adopting the ODF standard, ITD acted within its legal authority because:

In adopting the ODF Standard, ITD did not violate any state or Federal disability law, although ITD’s implementation of the standard must be conducted in a manner consistent with those laws;

ITD was not required by law to use the formal notice and comment process set forth in the Commonwealth’s Administrative Procedures Act in connection with the issuance of the ODF standard;

ITD did not violate any law pertaining to the Commonwealth’s Information Technology Advisory Board in connection with the adoption of the ODF standard; Under its enabling legislation, Mass. Gen. L. ch. 7 section 4A(d), and under the Commonwealth’s Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, Mass. Gen. L. ch. 110G section 17, ITD has clear authority to adopt standards pertaining to the formats of electronic documents created in the Executive Department; and

Adoption of the ODF standard did not create an illegal procurement preference.

I find it hard to understand why Galvin wants more control over electronic records. His archiving has remained in the stone age for quite some time. Perhaps he is not the one best qualified to speak about electronic archiving standards, since he has chosen to rely to a large extent on paper instead, something I learned from the brief:

In an ideal world, the Commonwealth’s state Archive would have a digital archive for the storage of this second category of electronic documents. ITD has repeatedly encouraged the Secretary of the Commonwealth, who maintains the state Archive and to whom the Supervisor of Public Records reports, to seek IT bond funding for the creation of a digital archive. Today the Commonwealth’s state Archive is primarily a paper-only facility. Because there is no state digital archive, only a small proportion of agencies have transferred electronic records destined for short and long term retention under the Records in Common Schedule to the Secretary’s custody. The electronic records of those relatively few agencies that have taken this path have been shipped to private sector document storage facilities where they are not accessible online. The Archive itself may store some paper records that have been migrated to non-digital electronic formats like microfiche and optical character recognition media.

Say, that sounds like a great system for storage in the Internet Age. Not. And the disabled are able to access those records precisely how, Secretary of the Commonwealth Galvin? Secretary Galvin is, according to Updegrove, the sponsor of the new amendment and its beneficiary. Is this the man best qualified to decide what standard is best for digital records? I'd make a joke about the blind leading the blind, but it would be tasteless.


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