Evidence of Microsoft Influencing OOXML Votes in Nordic States

As the date draws near for the first round of discussions before the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) on the topic of adopting Microsoft's Office Open XML format, allegations have arisen that Microsoft may have used influential tactics to sway the outcomes of recommendation votes in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.

Indications from voting members attending yesterday's meeting of the Swedish standards agency SIS are that between August 12 and August 27, the membership of the working group responsible for evaluating OOXML grew from 9 to 34. Apparently, under SIS rules, new members may pay a fee for the right to vote on a important ballot at any time prior to ballots being cast. And SIS members are apparently familiar with these rules, based on the account of one voting member who blogged this morning that he himself was asked to join on the last day, to help balance out an anticipated surge in pro-Microsoft votes.

But he was outflanked, as 23 other member companies who joined the working group that day were obviously Microsoft certified partners. While being a Microsoft partner doesn't necessarily commit you to supporting its way of doing business (case in point: Symantec), the sudden surge in partnership membership does look a little blatant.

Illuminet CEO Jonas Bosson was one SIS member who was urged to join at the last minute by one of the leaders of the Foundation for Free Information Infrastructure, to help balance an anticipated Microsoft-driven surge of five to seven members.

As Bosson relates for a Swedish blog in English, "First I spoke with Torbjtzrn Cederholm [a project manager] at SIS to see if it wasn't possible to stop companies that had not participated in the earlier meetings from voting. But SIS did not want to do that." Then, Bosson writes, he put up Illuminet's membership fee of 17,000 SEK, hoping to do his part as a balancing agent.

Independent developer Wictor Wilen was invited by Microsoft to attend yesterday's SIS working group vote as an observer. Yesterday Wilen blogged about his experience, which included personally witnessing Bosson's passionate speech. He wrote, "The representative from Illuminet, flanked with Sun and Google, did try to convince all the yes-sayers for a long time and the discussion went pretty harsh! I have to give credit to the guy, who fought for his cause and really had put some time into the specification."

But then, Wilen added, Bosson was cornered. At the climax of what was probably a heated debate, someone asked Bosson whether he'd be voting yes if this were OpenDocument Format on the table and not OOXML. As Wilen chronicled, "After some thinking he answered 'No, I would not!' This ended the discussion."

"This is how a standard is bought," Bosson wrote later. "I left the meeting in protest - pissed off."

The SIS did not tally the final vote in its own press release (PDF available here), though one report states it was 25 yea, 6 nay, with 3 abstentions.

Sweden is not alone in having a standards organization suspected of being manipulated. Late last month, neighboring Denmark's standards organization DS saw its working group membership grow by a considerable amount, with most or all new members (depending on the account) being Microsoft partners.

In Norway last week, it turns out the working group membership there didn't have to grow in order for things to turn out Microsoft's way anyway. As Linux developer and former Linpro CEO Gier Isene reported for his personal blog, although many members of Standard Norge had serious comments and reservations about OOXML - himself included - due to a procedural loophole, none of them ended up mattering.

"The formal committee work in each country is very different," Isene wrote. "In some countries, the committee responsible for the nation's voice in ISO is voting on the matter. In other countries like Norway, the process is determined by consensus. And here consensus is defined as unanimity. Yep, that's right. What Norway will say to ISO has to be agreed upon by all the committee's members. No voting, only consensus."

During the Norway group's vote, the time came for all comments to be put on the table, one by one. Isene's was first: "It seems contrary to ISO and [World Trade Organization] policy to approve a standard that is overlapping or competing with an existing standard."

Microsoft issued its objection: "We disagree." And that was all the company needed to undo Isene's and every other comment that followed.

Isene objected, and after some procedural dickering, Microsoft's representative was eventually asked to give an explanation for its disagreement. It didn't have one ready, Isene reported, and here is where the "hole" part of the "loophole" kicked in: Since there were so many comments that Microsoft would not have time to register its reasons for disagreement - which would necessitate a response from the commenter - the whole explanation process would be suspended.

"The farce kept on for about 4 1/2 hours," Isene went on, during which a discussion arose over whether it should be suggested that Microsoft create a mapping which would translate its older, proprietary Office 2003 formats and its proposed standard Office 2007 formats. But that discussion led nowhere.

These three instances could be indicators of things to come at the ISO, where observers have noted the number of countries applying for "privileged" or "P" status - countries that want to claim the right to vote on standardization - has increased dramatically in recent weeks.

As Linux Foundation board member and attorney Andrew Updegrove has noticed, nine countries have recently applied for, and apparently received, "P" status in the ISO: Cyprus, Ecuador, Jamaica, Lebanon, Pakistan, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Norway and Denmark are already voting "P" members, though Sweden (at least currently) is not.

"As someone who has spent a great part of my life working to support open standards over the past 20 years," Updegrove wrote today, "I have to say that this is the most egregious, and far-reaching, example of playing the system to the advantage of a single company that I have ever seen. Breathtaking, in fact. That's assuming, of course, that I am right in supposing that all of these newbie countries vote 'yes."'

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