Office 2003 XML: Gift or Concession?

Every once in a while a technical story has ramifications that tell us a great deal about our society. Take for instance the current negotiations between the state of Massachusetts and Microsoft over Office 2003 documents saved in XML format. This story gives us some hints about how good laws can be used to force a private company to support open standards and thereby benefit the general public.

The Microsoft Office XML formats initially seemed like a huge gift from Microsoft to the people of the world. Rather than having our documents locked up in a proprietary Microsoft format, suddenly we had a chance to share them freely in an XML format that could be read by many program on many different platforms. However, a struggle between the state of Massachusetts and Microsoft reveals much about the way governments, laws and corporations interact in 21st century America.

This is a complicated story which is neither one-sided nor easy to understand. As a result, I’m going to take you on a tour of the subject so that we can explore together the issues in this interesting and informative morality tale. In the end, you should have a better appreciation for one case in which ordinary citizens have at least a chance at winning back rights taken from them by a big corporation.

The European Union, Microsoft, and Proprietary Information

There is no greater symbol of Microsoft hegemony than the proprietary Microsoft DOC and XLS file formats. At this time, most businesses, governments and private citizens have willingly locked up their word processing and spreadsheet documents inside a proprietary format completely owned and controlled by a single company. The current state of affairs is perhaps just a bit Orwellian: Big brother is not just watching you, it controls the format in which all your personal, financial and government documents are stored!

The news that Microsoft is willingly giving up this enormous power by allowing us to save documents in an easily exchangeable XML format is hardly an every day occurrence. It is so surprising, in fact, that many people doubted that Microsoft would do such a thing just out of the goodness of their hearts.

The cynical noted that just prior to Microsoft’s announcement about opening up their format there was a string of stories about countries, mostly in Europe, who were going to insist that all government documents be stored in open formats. At least one state in the US, Massachusetts, also passed a law affirming that its government documents must be kept in open formats. The cynical said that Microsoft could either give up its position in these governments, or else open up its format. The claim then, was that the decision was not driven by common sense or altruism, but by necessity.

The position of the cynics was given additional weight by the recent decision by Microsoft to comply with a particular demand voiced by the State of Massachusetts. Microsoft’s willingness to change their license to conform with the desires of Massachusetts hints that Microsoft did in fact open up their formats primarily in order to meet the demands of governments and states who demanded open formats.

For those of us believe that we should have the right to save our documents in open, easily exchangeable formats, this whole episode is proof of the importance of political action, and of the power that people and governments have to act as a force for good in this world.

Understanding the Massachusetts Position on Open Standards

Massachusetts has a policy stating that government documents must be saved in an unrestricted open format. From my point of view, this is a sensible law that ensures that the public will have free access to a wide range of information. This law mirrors many similar laws created by members of the European Union.

Because of this law about open standards , Massachusetts had initially restricted the use of Microsoft Office because even its new open XML format was in some ways restricted and proprietary. In particular, it was evidently not legal to open Microsoft Office 2003 XML documents with a tool not made by Microsoft or licensed by Microsoft.

In a concession to Massachusetts over this issue, Microsoft changed their license to allow other software tools to open Microsoft Office documents saved in XML. In regard to this decision, Massachusetts employee Linda Hammel issued the following statement:

"Yes. [Microsoft] added a provision to the license stating that users could use ANY software (that would include GPL licensed open source desktop software) to read government records created using the MS XML reference schema."

Microsoft says the same thing in one of their public documents:

"We are acknowledging that end users who merely open and read government documents that are saved as Office XML files within software programs will not violate the license."

The point here is subtle. Microsoft freely gave away their license to use the XML formats that they had defined. Furthermore, they allowed anyone who was in compliance with the free license to build software that could read these XML files. For Massachusetts, the sticking point was that the license was still written by Microsoft, was difficult to interpret, and was required. Therefore the standard was not truly open.

What Microsoft did in response to Massachusetts’ complaint was to make an exception that specified that government documents did not need to be opened with software that was in compliance with the free Microsoft license. The license is still needed by you and me, and we would be breaking the law if we opened one of these documents with a tool that was not licensed by Microsoft. But government documents were not bound by this law.

Implications

It might be worthwhile to take a moment to contemplate this issue. Suppose you were a citizen of Massachusetts, who came across a government document saved from Microsoft Office as XML. Before Microsoft changed their license, it was not legal for you to access that document in any way, unless you had a Microsoft sanctioned tool with which to read the document. In other words, your rights as a citizen to freedom of the press, and to public government documents, was restricted by a private company that wanted to increase their profits.

Some might think it strange that Microsoft would be able to restrict access to a document just because of the format in which it was saved. But in fact, this is something we encounter all the time. It is, for instance, illegal to break the copyright software on DVD’s, or on MP3 files that are copyrighted with Digital Rights Management software. Another example would be the downloading of MP3 files over the Internet. You might be able to obtain files this way, but it is illegal.

Despite the familiarity of laws of this kind, it is still difficult for the average citizen to know their rights, and to know when they are in the wrong. For instance, who would guess that it is illegal to open a Microsoft document saved in an XML format with a non-sanctioned tool? Frankly, I had read about this issue before, and heard about Microsoft’s new "open standard" for XML documents. From what I read in the press, it never would have occurred to me that it was illegal to read documents in this "open format" with a tool not licensed by Microsoft. The very idea that it would be illegal to open a public XML document seems somewhat incredible to me. I’m sure that had I not read about this issue I would have unthinkingly opened such a document in Visual Slick Edit, emacs, or some other editor.

Massachusetts and the Law

The one thing that is clear about this case is that Massachusetts is absolutely right to insist that all documents be written in open formats that can be read by any tool created for that purpose. Computers are supposed to enhance our access to documents, not restrict it. In the past, if you were given a public government document in hard copy, the idea that you were not allowed to open it up and read it would sound absurd. But before Microsoft modified their license, there was a way to make it illegal to read a public government document that you had in your possession.

The point here is that Microsoft never would have modified their law had they not been under pressure to do so from Massachusetts. Furthermore, it is unlikely that Microsoft would ever have opened up their proprietary formats had they not been under pressure from Massachusetts and governments in Europe to do so.

Though I personally avoid proprietary formats as much as possible, I understand that private individuals and businesses should have the right to use such formats if they so desire. Of course, such business should understand that any proprietary document format could one day be abandoned by a private company, and could become partially or completely unreadable.

Unlike private businesses, I believe governments should have nothing to do with proprietary document formats. No public document should ever be written in a proprietary format, nor should any classified document that will one day be made public. Since most classified government documents should eventually be made public, there really is very little reason for any tool that creates proprietary formats to be used in a government office of any kind.

It seems a clear ethical violation for a government to save any document in a format that can only be read or edited by a product from one particular company. Clearly public documents should be freely readable, and editable, in a wide range of tools. Freedom of information and particularly a citizen’s access to government information is a more important principle than the ability of any one company to try to maximize profits. This is a classic illustration of how free societies sometimes need to create laws in order to preserve the basic rights and freedoms of its citizens.

Such matters are to me exceedingly clear. As a result, I find it amazing that laws such as those passed in Massachusetts have not been adopted by all government agencies, and most particularly by the US government in Washington. When one thinks of the silly laws that are passed in Washington nearly every day, it is amazing to contemplate how a no-brainer of this type has yet to even become a serious piece of legislation in the US Senate or Congress.

Office XML Caveats

Before closing this article I wanted to share a few facts that I picked up while researching this article. In particular, I dwell here on issues that I have with the existing Microsoft Office XML policy.

The official name for the formats in the Microsoft Office 2003 suite are WordprocessingML and SpreadsheetML. The main advantage of this technology is that XML provides a format for documents that need to be exchanged for business purposes. An XML document is structured in such a way that a program can open such a document, extract information from it, and process the data it finds in the document.

Microsoft only allows you to save to this format in 2 of the 6 available versions of Microsoft Office 2003. In other words, unless you own Office Enterprise or Professional, you can’t save in this format. For all intents and purposes, this fact alone invalidates the whole process of trying to use this format as a standard for document exchange. If you can’t exchange these documents with other Office users, then exactly what good will they be?

It is also strange to have a standard being set by one proprietary vendor. The point of this endeavor is to create a way for people to exchange documents freely between vendors and operating systems. Such a goal is unlikely to be achieved if one vendor completely controls the standard. Yes it is possible that Microsoft could manage this format in a fair and productive manner, but there are no safeguards to help ensure the quality or fairness of the product if it is completely controlled by one vendor.

There is also some argument as to whether the Office 2003 XML standard actually captures the complete set of formatting in a document. This article on internetnews.com reports a Microsoft spokesman as saying: "If you save something in raw XML format, you may lose some of the really rich formatting like graphics. That’s inherent in the way XML works." Which is true enough from one point of view. However, OpenOffice has no problem using their XML format to capture information on how graphics are stored in an OpenOffice document. If OpenOffice can do it, why can’t Microsoft?

Summary

Technology is normally detached from the everyday political battles that make up common public discourse. However, when governments begin using restricted proprietary formats to create public documents, then the arcane world of technical discourse suddenly becomes a public matter.

America was intended by its founders to be an open society, and our government was initially designed to be a public entity completely visible in all its particulars to all citizens. Attacks on this openness are constant, and often all too successful. The use of proprietary formats in government is one such case in which public access to government data is being unduly restricted. It is clear that all governments should adopt open standards for public documents of any kind.

The good news here is that Massachusetts and members of the European Union were able to force Microsoft to change their license to free up the process of reading government documents created with Microsoft or Microsoft licensed tools. This shows that it is still possible to fight back against large corporations that restrict our freedom. People too often think the battle is hopeless, and that there is nothing that can be done. Even worse, some know that it can be done, but argue that it shouldn’t be done on the absurd basis that all laws that restrict anyone in any way are necessarily wrong. Such people are really advocating that we all bow to the will of any powerful corporation or institution that comes along. Without laws restricting the rights of corporations and institutions, we would have little or no freedom.

This case shows that there is something that can be done to prevent the loss of rights and freedoms that were initially guaranteed by the constitution, laws and rights created by the founders of our country. Clearly, we should all write our Senators and Congressmen and demand that they pass similar laws promoting open standards.