Microsoft accused of rigging OOXML votes

Microsoft admits encouraging partners to join bodies deciding on ISO recognition of OOXML, but says that a Swedish memo offering rewards for doing so was an error
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The Free Software Foundation Europe has accused Microsoft of "stuffing the ballot boxes" in a vote designed to establish Office Open XML as a recognised industry standard.

Speaking to ZDNet.co.uk on Wednesday, Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) president Georg Greve said unprecedented numbers of Microsoft partner companies from several countries have joined standards organisations and have voted to approve the Office Open XML (OOXML) document format as an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard.

ISO certification would result in governments accepting OOXML as a recognised document format, encouraging its use to the exclusion of others. The FSFE argues this could lock governments into perpetual licensing relationships with Microsoft, as documents need to be kept in perpetuity.

Votes on ISO certification by national bodies in Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands, and the US have all been influenced by Microsoft, according to Greve.

"Membership of the Swiss body saw a surprising growth before the vote, while in Sweden a very similar thing happened — suddenly the room was overcrowded with Microsoft partners," Greve told ZDNet.co.uk. "Microsoft stuffed the ballot boxes in Sweden — the room was crammed with Microsoft 'yes' men. Special interest groups were formed in Germany to speed up the process."

"In the US the national body has seen surprising growth, and [as in previous votes] there has been a clear pattern of people joining later, voting for Microsoft, being Microsoft-certified Gold Partners," said Greve.

The attempt to influence the Swedish vote was publicised by the open-source community when a leaked memo emerged that gave the impression that not only had Microsoft asked partners to influence the vote but had also offered to pay them to do so. According to Groklaw, the memo from Microsoft offered partners "marketing support" and "additional support in the form of Microsoft resources" in return for joining the Swedish national body, the SSI.

In an email to ZDNet.co.uk, Microsoft admitted that it had sought to influence the vote around the world and in Sweden.

"Open XML is becoming one of the most widely utilised document format standards. A broad variety of customers, technology providers, and governments around the globe have a stake in its standardisation and ongoing evolution, and should have a seat at the table when these decisions are being made," said Tom Robertson, general manager for interoperability and standards at Microsoft. "Government agencies and national standards bodies have exercised their right to participate in this process, as have a number of companies, including those opposed to and those in favour of Open XML. Therefore, Microsoft has openly encouraged its partners to participate where they have an interest."

Swedish fiasco
Microsoft also admitted that one of its employees had sent an email that could be construed as Microsoft offering to recompense partners voting in Sweden.

"Microsoft corporate policy expressly forbids financial support, of any kind, to third parties for their participation as a member of a national body voting on the ISO/IEC standardisation of Open XML. This policy is widely communicated throughout the company and will be reiterated going forward," said Robertson.

"Unfortunately, it has come to our attention that a Microsoft employee in Sweden communicated with two partner companies about their participation in the Open XML vote in a way that was inconsistent with corporate policy and guidance. In the email communication, the employee correctly stated that Microsoft cannot pay the partners' fee for joining the Swedish working group. However, the employee also referenced joint marketing activities in the same email, thus creating potential confusion in the communication. The employee recognised and sought to correct this potential confusion immediately with both partner companies."

Robertson added that, when Microsoft Sweden learned of the situation, it contacted the Swedish national standards body, and informed the organisation of the employee's email.

"Microsoft Sweden confirmed to the Swedish national standards body that this was an isolated incident limited to one piece of communication sent to only two partner companies. This incident in no way affected the outcome of the Swedish national standards body vote," claimed Robertson.

Greve said that Microsoft partners encouraged to join at the last minute would not have enough time to read the 6,000-page specification in depth.

"Microsoft has filed a proprietary format of over 6,000 pages, and 80 percent of the stuff is unreviewed. Microsoft has been running round the world telling its partners to rubber-stamp the standard. It's impossible that every single organisation that has said 'yes' to OOXML has read the specification. Seriously, this is ridiculous — it's making a mockery of the ISO specification. If OOXML gets ISO certification, governments will have to review whether ISO means anything," said Greve.

Microsoft denied that seeking to influence partners to vote made a mockery of the ISO specification.

"Absolutely not. Open XML is becoming one of the most widely utilised document format standards. We reject the assertion that the document-standards process should be closed to new voices," said Robertson.

Greve claimed that the OOXML format was both proprietary, potentially binding governments and other users to Microsoft in perpetuity, and contained serious imperfections.

"We've found plenty of proprietary material in OOXML so far. Governments could get locked into formats where they don't have control over the data. OOXML is dependent on implementations by Microsoft, so to use OOXML is essentially betting on the continued existence of Microsoft. Governments would also be dependent on Microsoft in a political sense," he said.

Greve added that OOXML, although purporting to be an open standard, in fact contained proprietary components, while an example of the specification not being up to scratch was that it gave rounding errors when translating documents.

"As a technical specification, OOXML is extremely bad. Rounding errors are not normal in modern applications. If I was a financial organisation, or a governmental organisation that deals with finances, I'd be concerned about rounding errors," said Greve.

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