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.
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I don’t know if this is a terminology or an understanding thing, but there seems to be a lot of mix-up between the terms “Open Source Software” and “Open Standards Formats”. Also this may be deliberate, to confuse the issue to the uninitiated reader.
Well in either case its certainly unprofessional. Why do I say that? Well either:
1) Its deliberate confusion, in which case its knowingly misrepresenting the truth, thus unprofessional *shrug*
2) The author is utterly clueless, having done absolutely no research whatsoever on the Massachusetts policy directive.
Gimme a break, that author is a PAID professional. If he cannot do basic research, he doesn’t deserve his job.
In either case, its unprofessional.
I tend to Heinlein in such situations: to paraphrase: “where is the money?”, which leads me to believe its deliberate.
Thank you Andy. My Digital Freedoms feel a lot better with you and people like you pulling the curtain back to reveal the true nature of these gloom and doomers.
This could not possibly be “confusion”. It is a lie, plain and simple. The author clearly intends for readers to think that only open source software is acceptable under the guidelines. He also clearly states that Microsoft is not eligible to sell software to the state of MA. That is not true. (MS is choosing not to meet the guidelines, just as a Chinese software company could not sell MA software unless the programs were English-language programs.)
In fact, now that the ODF plugin exists for MS Word, doesn’t even MS Word satisfy the ITD directive?
Youve got to love the way they undermine their own (that is, Microsoft’s) position with some inconsistencies in their arguments. A contribution from the “Fair and Balanced” department maybe?
From the Big Lie:
“One size rarely fits all”
Thanks Heartland Institute, that’s what we’ve been saying all along and the whole point of the pro-ODF camp. It’s Heartwarming to see that the marketing message is consistently inconsistent, as that turn of phrase appeared in several other publications.
Do you think that the copyright holders of OpenOffice.org could sue the author of this paper for slander, or slander of title, or something like that? After all, the article state that the copyrighted OpenOffice.org code is in the public domain, which is false and devalues their copyrights.
I bet a letter from a lawyer raising this possibility could get them to react and re-write that part of the article.
Interesting question. I’m not a litigator and it’s been a long time since law school, but slander certainly wouldn’t be it. There are some causes of action such as “deliberate interference with advantageous contractual relations.” An example would be trying to get someone to cancel a contract. I think that this type of statement is not likely to be actionable, but it is very frequent for someone possessed of actual knowledge to send a letter to the person making the false statements and calling upon them to cease and desist, threatening legal action if they don’t.
That doesn’t have too much effect if there’s no reality to the legal threat, other than the fact that if the the person making the misstatements continues to do so, they can be “called out” in public for unquestionably spreading misinformation after he she has been informed of the true state of affairs.
SCO is suing Novell for “slander of title”.