Giving Bad Policies Another Whirl

Observers of recent legislative action in Sacramento should be forgiven for thinking they have been transported back to 2002, when policy makers were pushing government mandated software standards and micromanagement of cell phone companies. Five years later, in 2007, the same bad policies are being recycled — with one saving grace.

Back in 2002, open source zealots tried to convince California legislators to pass the “Digital Software Security Act,” which would have forced state agencies to use open source software exclusively. That bill failed, yet five years later Assemblyman Mark Leno’s AB 1668 looks to force California state agencies to use open XML (extensible markup language)-based formats.

Since there seems to be a memory lapse among the political elite as to why mandated open source rules are a bad idea, a brief reminder may help.

Freedom of Choice

First, mandating a single set of file formats without accounting for the needs, budgets and technological expertise of state agencies is poor policy. There are many different technology choices to serve various needs, and limiting choice automatically limits delivery options for the public.

One size does not fit all, and it is not difficult to imagine how the software needs of a privacy-sensitive health or social services group will be different from that of a disaster response agency. Add to that the fact that technology changes incredibly quickly, and it’s obvious that restricting government purchasing decisions to one format is a bad idea.

The reason advocates of such legislation want to go forward is supposedly to make sure it will be possible to read files well into the future. If that’s really the reason, why don’t we see private business loudly worrying about this very problem?

Perhaps the real motivation of those who want to force open source on Californians is that it’s a play by the open source industry to hamstring proprietary competitors. If that’s the case, any such move should be opposed with great zeal. Government has no business picking winners and losers in the marketplace.

Then there’s the matter of micromanaging cellular providers.

Stale Proposals

Readers may not remember the name Carl Wood, but he is the former Public Utilities Commissioner who began California’s long debate over whether the public needed the government to take over the marketing and consumer service practices of cell phone companies.

At least three legislators are currently pushing bills to micromanage customer service, sales and language policies.

Any of those moves would be a disaster, because when government gets involved in managing private business, the result is the DMV-ization of that industry. Those who value free phones and cheap minutes should oppose such regulations. While they might make the companies slightly more docile, they will also jack up product prices and slow down service.

All this activity to push old proposals may be depressing for those who seek progress, but there is at least one bright idea on the scene. Cable franchise reform, which was already passed in California and at least nine other states, sheds regulations barring telecom providers from competing in the video market.

This is great news, as the new competition has already had the effect of generating new services — and, more importantly for some, better service. Those who use Comcast in California can already see a difference, and Charter Communications in Missouri recently told its local paper that in response to competition, it beefed up its call centers so that service response time was up while complaints were down in the first quarter.

It is no surprise that loosening government’s grip on the cable sector is making things better for consumers in each state where reform has taken place. This lesson shouldn’t be lost. California lawmakers — and others across the nation — would do well to learn from the success of cable franchise reform and discard recycled proposals to over-regulate the technology sector.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

1 Comment

  • Ms. Arrison seems to think that mandating open formats will hamstring some software vendors. She’s wrong. Whose fault is it that Microsoft chose not to participate in the ODF standard? That’s right – Microsoft’s. There is no such thing as an open standard that hamstrings software vendors. By definition, any vendor is free to implement an open standard. The California bill in question, AB 1668, specifically allows for proprietary software implementations of an open format. Also, I’d like to point out that once OOXML becomes a certified ISO standard, it will also qualify under the terms of the bill. Furthermore, Microsoft, in opposing the open source bills in 2002, made a big deal about open standards and how supporting them was more advantageous than supporting open source. It was apparently an argument of convenience, seeing as how they no longer advocate such a position.
    Lastly, it’s disturbing that Ms. Arrison doesn’t see the value in guaranteeing citizens access to information. The only way to do that without erecting artificial barriers to entry is with open standards. In taking her position, Ms. Arrison has become an unwitting opponent of basic human rights. She seems to believe that we don’t have guaranteed access to information. That’s a shame, because our modern society has never, until now, restricted access to information. We will not rest until we have guaranteed protection, under the law, and recognition of these inalienable rights.

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