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News From Hungary: A Followup Meeting of TC on MSOOXML Dec. 5
Monday, November 26 2007 @ 10:29 PM EST

Do you remember the August meeting of the Technical Committee in Hungary over whether to approve MS OOXML as a standard? It was one of the places where the scandal-rocked ISO process bubbled up and over into headlines. In that country, the issue was whether proper procedures were followed in the voting. There is now a report and transcript of the meeting [PDF] in Hungarian, of course, 27 pages long, which is now made public.

And there is news: when last we heard, the irregularities were being examined and some decision would have to be reached on what to do about them. Here is what will happen next. On December 5th, there will be another meeting of the Technical Committee in Hungary with what looks to be a fascinating agenda:

1. Review, discuss and decide whether to accept the draft of the new procedural rules of the Committee, which have just been sent to them.

2. Decide whether Hungary should become a P member.

3. Have a technical discussion of MS OOXML.

Regarding the P membership, Gergely Tomka, who attended the August meeting, tells me he believes that Microsoft's strategy now is "to entice many countries to become P members" and then send Microsoft-positive delegates as the representatives of these countries to the ISO event in February for the vote.

Tomka provides a summary of the transcript and report for us. The actual meeting transcript begins on page 9.

Andy Updegrove has started writing a book on the ODF/MS OOXML story, and he's asking for everyone who played any part in it to provide him with their input on what they saw and experienced. He would like it to be as complete a history as possible. And that is what this is, part of the history. News and history.

Some of Tomka's report deals with the discussion, or argument, between some of the committee members on how one should and shouldn't proceed in an ISO technical committee meeting, so I hunted down the ISO procedure documents, so you can read them for yourself and figure out who was right and who was not. The ISO directives on procedures are found on this page:

ISO/IEC Directives, Part 1: Procedures for the technical work

ISO/IEC Directives, Part 2: Rules for the structure and drafting of International Standards

ISO Supplement, Procedures specific to ISO

Those links take you to the page in each case where you can "view" as Word, natch, or as PDF, and clicking on view downloads the document. It's part 1 that seems to cover our current issues, particulary on pages 26 and 27. And with that, here is his summary:

*****************************

Some context: this report is about the 31 August 2007 meeting of MSzT MB (Műszaki Bizottság, meaning Technical Committee) 819.

There were 42 registered members of the Committee, up from 28 two months before. The CEO of MSzT, the Hungarian Standards Body, Mr. György Pónyai, opened the meeting and immediately pointed out an important letter he had received from the Hungarian Ministry of Economy and Transport (GKM) earlier.

József Huba, a co-worker of Mr. Pónyai, explained the details of the voting process, I think correctly. He emphasized that there was going to be another round of voting about OOXML, and that in order for Hungary to be able to officially submit a position, "consensus" ("közmegegyezés" in Hungarian) must be reached; "consensus" is defined by law as a situation where no significant opposition to the proposed resolution exists and all objections have been addressed. He stressed that this did not mandate a unanimous vote.

Béla Bíró recounted the sequence of events that had led up to 31 August's meeting since the first meeting on 25 June:

  • 25 June 2007: first meeting. Vote to approve OOXML 8:3.

  • 20 July 2007: IBM Hungary appealed to Mr. Pónyai requesting a new meeting. Citing procedural irregularities, they claimed the 25 June meeting to have been invalid/illegitimate.

  • 10 August 2007: Mr. Péter Pál, the CEO of IBM Hungary, sent a letter to Mr. János Kóka, the Minister of Economy and Transport. The letter stated that the 25 June meeting had been illegitimate for at least the following reasons: first, that originally it was supposed to be a technical discussion panel and no voting had been anticipated; secondly, that, the committee secretary had declared that a simple majority vote would be sufficient to reach a resolution, which is inconsistent with the requirement for a consensus as defined by the law; and thirdly, that invitations had been sent out too late, violating a procedural rule that required two weeks prior notice. Based on these irregularities, Mr. Pál appealed to the Minister to exercise his rights and duties as the official tasked with overseeing the proper operation of MSzT, so that a new Hungarian position on OOXML could be adopted, this time following the rules of due process.

    Later that day, Mr. Géza Egyed, a state secretary of GKM (the Ministry) sent a letter to Mr. Péter Krauth, stating that the 25 June meeting had been convoked and conducted improperly, and that therefore any resolution arrived at was null and void; he further ordered the committee to convoke a new meeting no later than 17 August so that the procedural requirement of two weeks prior notice could be met. (Comment: the meeting would have had to take place no later than 31 August for the official Hungarian position to be submitted to ISO on time; thus the 17 August deadline.) Mr. Egyed further inquired as to the technical resons for the 25 June decision.

  • 13 August 2007: Mr. Péter Krauth, chairman of Committe 819, replied. He argued basically that the 25 June meeting had been convoked using the same procedure as several previous meetings before it, and that at the 25 June meeting nobody had objected to the procedure. (Mr. Bíró interjected at this point that the committees of MSzT were not required to have detailed, codified procedural rules, and that Committe 819 didn't have such rules.) Mr. Krauth went on to argue that the 25 June decision had been technically sound and thus no need for a second meeting existed. He also pointed out that it would be difficult and impractical to attempt to convoke a second meeting in the middle of the summer vacation season.

  • 16 August 2007: Mr. Kóka sent a letter to Mr. Pónyai (note how the matter was escalated from a disagreement between a ministry official and a committee chairman to the level of the Minister and the CEO of MSzT). Mr. Kóka re-enumerated the irregularities cited earlier and called on Mr. Pónyai to a) convoke a new meeting, this time in full conformance with the rules of due process and b) to review the procedural rules of the committee (Pamela, you may recall that we sent you a translation of this letter on 31 August).

  • 17 August 2007: Mr. Pónyai convoked a new committee meeting, to be held on 31 August.

  • 24 August 2007: Microsoft Hungary sent a letter to the GKM and the MSzT. They argued that the Ministry had no direct control over the MSzT but would have to contest the 25 June decision before the Standards Council (Szabványügyi Tanács), if it was dissatisfied with it; and that it could have appealed the eventual decision of the Standards Council in court. (Comment: this procedure would have taken months at best, years at worst, so following it would have precluded the Ministry from effecting a new meeting.) They went on to say that the new meeting had been convoked by Mr. Pónyai, the CEO of MSzT, instead of the secretary of the committee, who would have been the only official authorized to do so; and that for these reasons, the 31 August meeting would be illegitimate and that thus MSzT had no option but to submit the June 25 decision to ISO as the Hungarian vote on OOXML.

    (Personally, I believe Microsoft may have been right as far as the correct appeal procedure was concerned; it certainly does sound plausible. I'm not sure I'd like a minister to be able to order the official standards body around in general.)

  • 29 August 2007: Mr. Pónyai asked Mr. Kóka whether he wanted to reconsider his position in the face of these new developments.

  • 30 August 2007: Mr. Kóka sent a new letter to Mr. Pónyai (20 hours before the bginning of the 31 August meeting). (We sent you a translation of this letter as well on 2 September, Subject "details about hungary".) The Minister stated that he also believed the new meeting to have questionable legitimacy and that thus any decision reached there could be appealed on these grounds by any interested parties. He also called on the MSzT to formulate new, usable procedures, giving a 60-day deadline to do so.

The meeting

Mr. Pónyai surmised that the situation was hopeless; the previous decision had been voided by the Ministry (whether correctly or not did not matter at that point), and making a new decision would be pointless because it could later be appealed on procedural grounds. Therefore, he said, we could talk about OOXML, or we could go home, but it wouldn't make much of a difference either way.

Mr. Krauth complemented [ed: meaning added to or amplified] the historical record by explaining that the 25 June meeting had been convoked at the request of IBM Hungary, and he expressed what might perhaps be best described as surprised annoyance that it was IBM who later called the legitimacy of that meeting into question.

Personal note: the officers of the MSzT and the Committee seemed to be very annoyed with this state of affairs. They had been doing their jobs for a long time and were used to an atmosphere of friendly and above all pragmatic collaboration with little regard to legal procedures or the letter of the law. Now, however, circumstances conspired to have legal people tread all over their little secluded lives, forcing the primarily technical standards people to correspond with ministers and company lawyers. Sitting at home being sick and having to read this transcript I appreciate how wretched they must have felt.)

The transcript of the actual meeting starts on page 9.

At first, Microsoft argued to uphold the 25 June decision, citing the same reasons as in their 24 August letter.

Mr. Bíró lamented that the members of the Committee were in a position where it was impossible to reach a consensus that would satisfy everyone and that wouldn't be appealed by any of the parties later. Commenting on Microsoft's position that the Minister didn't have the authority to void the 25 June decision, he said that whether this was the case or not would be determined in court one day, but that as far as he was concerned, the Committee and MSzT were bound by the letters from the Minister.

Microsoft interviewed Mr. Krauth in much the same way a lawyer would interrogate a witness, apparently seeking to prove that the 25 June meeting was legitimate after all. They asked questions about the highly informal procedures in place at the MSzT; they then suggested to try to formulate new procedural rules for Committee 819 at this meeting.

Mr. Krauth expressed his doubts that 50 people could have a constructive debate about procedural rules and went on to say that the Minister had called on MSzT to review its procedural rules anyway, but that this wasn't on that day's agenda and that he didn't believe this issue should be addressed by the current meeting.

Mr. Attila Suhajda of IBM Hungary confirmed that they had requested the 25 June meeting in order to discuss what he literally called "the heap of paper that was OOXML" in order to "interpret it for both sides" (note how he's talking about two sides...). He said they hadn't anticipated a vote, just a technical discussion.

A lengthy and unfruitful dispute ensued with numerous participants arguing for and against considering the 25 June decision to be the official Hungarian position on OOXML. People recounted stuff that we already know, like how other national committees experienced sudden, you could say explosive, growth; how new P members sprang up like mushrooms; etc.

What was news for me was when Microsoft explained that some letters (or possibly e-mails) had been exchanged between the participants of the 25 June meeting before the meeting, which had included discussions on voting; they even quoted the IBM delegate, a Mr. Lajos Nóbik, as writing about proposed voting rules. Microsoft said that in the light of this, IBM couldn't plausibly claim to have been surprised by the fact that voting took place at the 25 June meeting.

The CEO of Hungarian Red Hat partner company ULX Kft made me smirk when he suggested that the new members of the Committee all introduce themselves and articulate their position on the merits and shortcomings of OOXML. Most new members decidedly looked panicky; I think of the 70 or so people present only 5 or 6 actually had any notion about OOXML. Nobody reacted to this proposal.

Shortly thereafter, two votes were called. In the first, Microsoft proposed that the assembled members declare by consensus that the meeting is valid and legitimate, all concerns regarding its convocation notwithstanding. 26 out of 42 voted in favour. This clearly wasn't consensus, which frustrated the Microsoft representatives to the extent that they became decidedly impolite as they were groping for something, anything, to get their way. For example, they called the mandate of Mr. Suhajda (the IBM delegate) into question and inquired whether he was duly authorized to represent IBM, and whether the associated paperwork was in order, and whether they could see it; all the while using the Hungarian familiar form of address "te" instead of the formal "Ön" (this is apparent from the verb conjugation). (Of course, it's possible that they knew each other well, but it struck me as odd nonetheless.)

The next question to vote on was whether to attempt a technical discussion of the OOXML draft. Both IBM and Microsoft had a presentation prepared, as had a few of the smaller companies, like the one I represented or the Hungarian Free Software Institute. IBM called this vote, because any discussion of the "merits" of OOXML was bound to benefit the IBM camp and harm Microsoft. 17 voted in favour, and since 26+17=43, apparently someone who voted to "legitimise" the meeting also voted for a technical discussion, which is mildly surprising.

As this vote also failed, Microsoft again began pressing for the acceptance of the 25 June decision. They asked why MSzT hadn't submitted the decision to ISO sooner; MSzT replied that because the deadline was 2 September and that because the legitimacy of the decision had been called into question.

Finally, Mr. Krauth announced that a verbatim transcript of the meeting was being prepared. We all agreed to organize a technical discussion panel in the near future. Microsoft asked for an opportunity to review "the proposed transcript" before it would be released, but Mr. Krauth kindly explained the concept of "verbatim" to them. The meeting ended.

Aftermath and recent news

Nothing stirred for more than two months. No transcript materialized, no new meeting was convoked, no procedural rules seemed to be forthcoming. Some members started to prod, and things slowly began to move forward again.

We received a 4-page version of the meeting minutes (not the verbatim transcript); many found this unacceptable and started to ask questions. A few days ago, the transcript and the audio recordings became available, and we also received an invitation to a meeting to be held on 5 December 2007.

To say that the agenda promises excitement would be an understatement:

1. Review, discuss and hopefully accept the draft of the new procedural rules of the Committee (alas, I haven't read the draft yet).

2. Decide whether Hungary should become a P member (on this issue, no consensus will be required as long as somebody is willing to foot the bill, but of course all committee members will get to influence Hungary's decision as a P member, should the country become one). An MSzT official wrote in an e-mail that if a committee member had the financial means and the manpower to participate in the ISO process as a P member, nobody should hold them back as they are entitled to this opportunity to represent their interests.

3. Technical discussion of OOXML.

Regarding P membership, I believe Microsoft's game now is to entice many countries to become P members and then delegate properly indoctrinated henchmen as the representatives of these countries to the ISO event in February.

Also, it is rumoured that 5 or 6 new members are joining the committee; and that at the 5 December meeting, only members who had been present at the 31 August meeting would be allowed to vote. This leads me to suspect that the new members are not in the thrall of Microsoft, because I suspect that it's Microsoft who lobbied for this voting restriction (seeing that for 31 August they were able to summon more bondsmen than IBM).

There is an old curse which goes "may you live in interesting times." I'm beginning to understand what it means now.

Gergely Tomka


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