For the last couple of weeks I've been writing a number of blog entries focusing on poorly researched and deliberately misleading items in the news. One of those pieces is called The Script Reloaded: Recognizing "Them." The first premise of that entry was that it's easy to spot opinion pieces that derive from a common source, based on the points made and the language used. The second was that there's a difference between pieces from interested sources that are based on "talking points," and planted stories that contain the same message, but don't disclose that they're just a conduit for someone else's message (or worse yet, disinformation). For example, you expect an op/ed piece by a vendor officer, or a quote from a vendor spokesperson, to be toeing the party line. But when you read a "citizen" op/ed piece, you don't want to worry whether it's been vendor-influenced unless there's the usual italicized disclosure at the end of the piece.
This difference is important, because most of us are willing to give a "citizen" op/ed or a report issued by a neutral non-profit more credence than a vendor-piece - unless we know that they have an economic axe to grind. That's where paying attention to the language can help - especially when there is a campaign to spread a Big Lie - the subject of another recent blog entry of mine on the same theme.
I promised in my last entry to highlight new articles that caught my eye that seem suspect, and this morning read one that has all of the hallmarks that I noted before. The piece in question is by Steven Titch, a Senior Fellow of the Heartland Institute, and also the editor of its monthly newsletter. The Institute describes itself on its home page as, "devoted to discovering and promoting free-market solutions to social and economic problems," and the article is called The Dangers of Dictating Procurement.
The story is riddled with an astonishing number of inaccuracies that have already been called out by Don Parris at LXer.com, so I won't mention too many of them here. The most blatant one, however, is a Big Lie that is relevant to this entry: the author claims that the policy adopted last year by the Massachusetts Information Technology Division (ITD) requires the use of only open source versions of ODF. That contention is wholly inaccurate, as anyone would know after doing the most perfunctory research on the topic.
Nevertheless, we see the following in the Heartland Institute piece:
A Massachusetts directive that mandates use of an open source software format for electronic document storage marked a major victory for the open source movement. It remains to be seen, however, whether the order will benefit the state’s agencies and employees or save taxpayers money....Open source software can be a sound alternative to proprietary products. Linux has proved that in the business environment....At the same time, where there is product choice, especially in technology, informed evaluation is essential. One size rarely fits all. It’s dangerous for governments to legislate or dictate procurement decisions.
Which sounds a great deal like this, from a spokesperson for the Initiative for Software Choice, as quoted in FCW.com:
“We prefer the marketplace to choose the open-source formats,” said Michael Wendy, a spokesman for the Initiative for Software Choice, a coalition of software companies. “We don’t have anything against open source. Our rub is when you have a government mandate saying, ‘Thou shalt only use open source to meet government procurement needs.’ If these products are truly better, they’re going to win out.”
Which sounds a great deal like this, from the San Jose Mercury piece I blogged on before:
What government should not do, however, is mandate specific technologies to meet these requirements. Such mandates open up a Pandora's box of trouble. It is in the interest of the IT service industry to provide the best solutions, but mandates would fit a single solution to many needs, though one size does not fit all when it comes to technology.
To be fair, the Heartland Institute does bring out facts that are perfectly valid: vendors such as IBM do promote open source, because they hope to make revenue out of services relating to open source, and it is fair to compare "total costs of ownership" between open source and proprietary software.
But the article is simply misrepresenting fact (or spreading another Big Lie, if you will) when it says that "The Massachusetts law tilts state procurement heavily toward vendors like IBM without any guarantee of savings or tangible user benefits." Most obviously, the ITD policy doesn't require open source implementations, as noted, and Microsoft need only support ODF in its proprietary software to be eligible to continue to sell to Massachusetts. In fact, if Ecma, and then ISO, adopt the XML Reference Schema that Microsoft has offered for standardization, it is more likely than not that the ITD policy will place that schema on its approved list of standards, and therefore will permit Office 12 to be placed on its approved procurement list as well.
All in all, it is difficult to read a piece like this and not conclude that it is part of a deliberate disinformation campaign, given that it's author has taken the time to research detailed IBM revenue figures by product and service, but completely misrepresents an ITD policy that is publicly available and has been extensively reported.
I'll continue to keep my eye out for similar examples of what appear to be closely coordinated messaging. If you notice one that I don't, please let me know.
For further blog entries on ODF, click here