This week found me in Austin, Texas for the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit (which was, incidentally, excellent), and therefore able to spend Wednesday morning in a hearing room at the State Capitol. That morning, the Government Reform Committee of the Texas House of Representatives, chaired by representative William "Bill" Callegari, was scheduled to hear testimony on electronic document issues, and I had been asked to be one of the invited experts to help put them in the picture.
Texas, as you may recall, is one of six states in 2007 that considered whether to take legislative action in connection with open document standards. After hearings on the topic, the decision was to commission further study rather than to act on the bill that had been introduced. More specifically, the Government Reform Committee was directed to:
Research, investigate, and make recommendations on how electronic documents can be created, maintained, exchanged, and preserved by the state in a manner that encourages appropriate government control, access, choice, interoperability, and vendor neutrality. The committee shall consider, but not be limited to, public access to information, expected storage life of electronic documents, costs of implementation, and savings.
The current hearing had been scheduled in a committee of the House of Representatives, which appears to be taking a more active role at this point in time than the State Senate, although any eventual bill will have to be resolved between both branches of the legislature.
Hearings like this (and the other activities that are part of the same overall process) are held every day in state houses around the country, addressing hundreds of issues of all types. But unless you have the time to seek them out (or to watch them on a public cable channel, if available), it’s easy to forget that this is an important element of the grist that governments mill in order to eventually produce legislation. For those that might be interested in such matters and wonder what a hearing is like, I’ll therefore provide a brief overview of what this particular hearing was about, who presented, and what they said.
Committee Clerk Jonathan Mathers was the chief architect of the hearing, and was very active for weeks before the event in deciding who should present, learning what they could contribute, and trying to construct a balanced selection of presenters who could provide the full spectrum of opinion, as well as be able to speak authoritatively to those issues that were of particular interest to the committee. Not surprisingly, I was asked to join a panel that was presenting the "pro ODF view," and was coordinated by the ODF Alliance, which advocates in favor of ODF to governments in the United States and around the world. Another panel was identified with OOXML, and included a Microsoft representative and those that would speak in support of its position. Our group had discussions in advance, to decide who would cover what topics, and everyone who presented was expected to submit a summary of their testimony in advance. They could also supply whatever additional supporting materials they thought the committee should have available for reference. Jonathan Mathers compiled all of this material, as well as bios for each of the presenters.
The agenda for the meeting was announced in advance (as with all such hearings), so that anyone with an interest in the topic could attend, and so that individuals could state a desire to speak at the hearing as well.
By the day of the hearing, the final dance card l(and the order of presentation) looked like this:
- Dr. Gary Chapman, Director of the 21st Century Project, LBJ School of Public Affairs; Dr. Chapman focused on the value of "public data" rather than document formats as such, with the link being that the document formats are crucial to the free exchange of such data. As an example, he used a Google Map showing information volunteers had added into on the location of fires last year in the San Jose area, which emergency responders in turn then relied on. He stressed that government should ensure that government data was available for such usage, through the utilization of open standards. I personally found his presentation quite interesting, as it reminded everyone that the issue isn’t really about formats as such, but their ability to make the data they contain more universally and consistently available throughout time.
- Tom Rabon Jr., Exec. VP of Red Hat and Michael Tiemann, VP of Open Source Affairs of Red Hat. Tom and Michael undertook the perenially necessary and difficult task of explaining exactly what open standards are, what open source is, how open source is different from proprietary code, and how each relates to and relies on open standards. It was clear that there was still a degree of work left to be done as the committee did their best to wade through it.
- The ODF "Panel of Experts," made up of myself, in my individual capacity, Rob Weir, Software Architect, on behalf of IBM, Jeremy Allison, Lead Developer for the Samba Team, and a Google employee, Doug Johnson, Corporate Standards for Global Government Strategy for Sun, and Marino Marcich, Executive Director of the ODF Alliance. I opened with my concept of Civil ICT Rights and Standards (my testimony appears at the end of this blog entry), and the role that I think that government needs to play to protect them. The other panelists developed more traditional themes , such as the importance of open standards, the virtues of competition and innovation that they can bring, costs savings that can be achieved, and the experiences of other governments that have done trials and cost studies. I believe that the ODF Alliance will compile all of the presentations in the next week or so, at which time I’ll add a link here.
- A "Panel of Experts" from the other side of the document format aisle, if you will, comprising Stuart McKee, National Technology Officer for Microsoft, Bill Breslin, VP of Application Solutions, Insource Technology, and Chris J. Katopis, Director, Initiative for Software Choice. Their panel was surprisingly short, making relatively general statements at a high level, and primarily arguing that it was inadvisable for government to mandate particular standards choices. Other themes (from Chris Katopis) included suggesting that mandating specific standards could cause small companies, including local companies, to end up as losers. Of course, a hearing is but one step in a process that only becomes meaningful if a bill is introduced, at which point one-on-one discussions with legislators and their staff are what determine the final outcome.
- A neutral, state-oriented panel of "Informational Resources Panel of Experts," including Ginger Salone, Deputy Executive Director for Statewide Technology Service Delivery, and Tim Nolan, Program Planning and Research Specialist, Texas State Library and Archive Commission. This was a pragmatic review that drilled down on specific state issues, such as producing documents for legal and freedom of information requests, what role standards should play, and what the costs of transitioning to a digital reality would be like. It was agnostic on open source, and supportive of the very important role that open standards need to play.
- Several "Resource Witnesses" then spoke (many that had earlier added their name to the list did not show up). They included Gary Phillips, from Symantec, and Sharron Rush, of Knowbility.org, an accessibility consulting, training and advocacy group. Phillips was attending not to speak for or against open document formats as such (although he was in favor of open standards). Instead, he wanted to be sure, in effect, that whatever happened in connection with the document format issue wouldn’t impact other technology interests, such as the ability to charge standards related royalties. Rush followed up on a theme that I had already introduced in my testimony, which was the importance of governments ensuring equal access to those with disabilities through the use of appropriate standards and technology.
In the grand tradition of political processes throughout the United States, it was both proper etiquette as well smart practice to make as many complimentary statements as possible about Texas sports teams. One presenter presumably gained bonus points by making a favorable comment about the Chair’s (out of state) alma mater as well. Most presenters from out of state tried to establish some prior contact with the Longhorn State, no matter how tenuous. Complimenting the committee members on their insightful questions was also de rigueur.
Clearly, the Committee did not contain any technical experts (and each of its members was in his 50s or 60s as well). Still, the committee members were doing their best to follow what everyone was saying and trying to figure out what mattered. At the same time, our team was striving (not always successfully) to speak in as "laymanly" a fashion as possible. Suffice it to say that technical folk sometimes have a hard time remembering what is in fact techspeak rather than everyday language, or worse (e.g., platforms and backbones can mean very different things to different people). The committee members were never shy about asking questions, though, and there was a lot of interactive dialogue, with other panel members sometimes joining in to supplement answers to committee member questions.
When the hearing ended at 1:30 after five hours, it was difficult to tell exactly what of value might have been conveyed and absorbed. At minimum, it was clear that cost would play a role in any eventual decision. It appeared that the State had already completed a study on what it would cost to convert to ODF, but it appeared that the study had not taken into account what it would cost to upgrade to Office 2007 if it stayed within its existing technology. Both the ODF and the OOXML panels commented on this (in their own ways, of course). The ODF team also spoke about the importance of standards in emergency settings, and this seemed to strike a cord as well.
At the end of the day, doubtless little of moment had occurred. In the bigger picture, though this was another small step in ongoing, global effort to raise awareness in governments about the importance of document formats. As Dr. Chapman, the first presenter indicated, the most important goal is for that awareness to rise to the point that effective action is taken to ensure public record preservation.
And at the commercial level, it was evidence once more that the battle over document formats will continue to be waged at every level, in every statehouse and other political venue around the world for some time to come.
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Here’s my testimony (extra detail was added as I delivered it):
TESTIMONY TO THE GOVERNMENT REFORM COMMITTEE OF THE TEXAS HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
The Need to Recognize and Protect
"Civil Information and Communications Technology Rights"
April 9, 2008
Thank you Mr. Chairman, and thank you to the members of your committee.
My name is Andy Updegrove, and I’m a lawyer that has represented over eighty non-profit organizations that develop and promote technical standards for areas such as computer software and hardware. Many of these standards are “interoperability standards.” Standards of this type allow people like you and me to be able to choose between products from many different vendors, each competing with the others on price and extra features in an effort to get our business, whether we are buying light bulbs, cell phones or computer software.
Standards like these underlie everything that has to do with technology. For example, they make the Internet and the Web possible. The State’s Web site could not serve the needs of Texas citizens without them – assuming that the State’s CIO chooses the same standards that the citizens home computers use as well.
Today, we are moving rapidly into a world in which we do less and less face to face, or even over the telephone. Instead, we do more and more on line. Governments are moving aggressively in this direction as well, because they can provide more information to their citizens more quickly, conveniently and inexpensively for all concerned. And not using any paper at all.
In making this important and useful transition, however, we need to be aware that information and communications technology (ICT) can also limit our ability to interact with government, if we go about setting our systems up incorrectly. In fact, we need to take great care that our hard-won civil rights are not inadvertently compromised in the process. For example, if you could only use certain products to log on to a government site and download information or enter data, and could not afford those products, your right to interact with government would be diminished. If you were disabled and house-bound, it might almost be eliminated.
I believe that it is important that we recognize the concept of what I will refer to as "Civil ICT Rights" – rights such as freedom of speech, and freedom of association, that we increasingly exercise on line, rather than in person. I am happy to report to you that certain interoperability standards can play an essential role in guaranteeing our Civil ICT Rights. Not surprisingly, I call such standards "Civil ICT Standards." By adopting the right standards, the State can help ensure that any citizen, anytime, and from anywhere, can interact with her government electronically – even with many modern cell phones.
This is why legislators, and not simply state ICT professionals, need to think about standards. Civil ICT Standards are where policy and technology touch at the most intimate level. Much as a constitution or bill of rights establishes and balances the basic rights of an individual in civil society, standards codify the points where proprietary technologies touch each other, and where the passage of information is made possible – or not. Without such standards, only the products of the same vendor can reliably “talk” to each other without expensive customization.
But with the right Civil ICT Standards in place, the following rights can be guaranteed:
- That any citizen can use any product or service, proprietary or open, that she desires when interacting with her government.
- That any citizen can use any product or service when interacting with any other citizen, and to exercise every civil right.
- That any entrepreneur can have equal access to marketplace opportunities at the technical, standards-mediated level, independent of the market power of existing incumbents.
- That any person, advantaged or disadvantaged, and anywhere in the world, can have equal access to the Internet and the Web in the most available and inexpensive method possible.
- That any owner of data can have the freedom to create, store, and move that data anywhere, any time, throughout her lifetime, without risk of capture, abandonment or loss due to dependence upon a single vendor.
One of my clients, a non-profit called OASIS, has created an important standard of this type, called the OpenDocument Format, or ODF for short. Document formats represent one of the most crucial types of Civil ICT Standards, as they not only ensure that every citizen can exchange documents with her government, but do so using the ICT tools of her choosing – many of which today are free. Such standards can also ensure that public records will be accessible in a hundred years – unlike music on eight track tapes. And they can also reintroduce, and are already restoring, innovation and competition to the computer desktop, where they have been sadly lacking for almost two decades.
I believe that governments must act to secure and protect our Civil ICT Rights with the same vigor and determination they have used to protect our hard won traditional rights. Why? Because industry alone cannot be assumed to bring the same degree of attention and concern to this task.
I believe that only by recognizing the existence and differences between traditional civil rights and Civil ICT Rights will we be able to ensure their protection. And only by recognizing the existence and special status of Civil ICT Standards will we be able to adapt the practices of the past to meet the challenges of a future that has already arrived, whether we realize it or not.
Thank you for allowing me to share these thoughts with you today.
 The author is an attorney practicing in Boston Massachusetts who has represented more than 80 consortia that develop and/or promote technical standards, including OASIS, the developer of the OpenDocument Format (ODF) and the Linux Foundation, which supports, promotes and protects the Linux operating system kernel. He has written and spoken extensively in support of open standards generally, and ODF in particular. Much of his written work is collected at the Standards Today and the Standards Blog sections of www.consortiuminfo.org, a free Web site that he maintains for the benefit of the open standards and open source communities. His full biography may be found here. The much more extensive paper upon which this testimony is based may be found here: http://www.consortiuminfo.org/bulletins/feb08.php#feature