LXer Readers: You Made a Difference. Thank You!

Posted by tadelste on Nov 26, 2005 4:01 PM
LXer.com; By Tom Adelstein, Editor-in-Chief

This morning I received an email from Andy Oram at 6:59 AM telling me about the Story of Peter Quinn coming under investigation for traveling to open source conferences. Andy is my editor at O'Reilly and the best person I know. He immediately wrote an article called Another desperate attempt to discredit Massachusetts OpenDocument adoption. I immediately submitted to Slashdot and Digg.com. I just saw the article on the front page of Digg.com and Slashdot .


What does this mean? It means that Andy's article will hit the greatest number of people that we can reach. Since the article is under Creative Common's License, I'm republishing here and adding it to our Features section.

Thank you Andy for starting the open source and Linux practice at O'Reilly 15 years ago and for your incredible commitment to freedom! Thank you LXer readers for your commitment to making this a free world and a world that works for everyone!

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.

Andy Oram is an editor for O'Reilly Media, specializing in Linux and free software books, and a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. His web site is www.praxagora.com/andyo.

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