Nichi Vendola explains (but does he?) his Berlusconi-like deal with Microsoft

The day after signing a Berlusconi-like deal with Microsoft, Nichi Vendola, president of the Puglia Region, published an explanation on the website of its party. These are my comments to the main parts of that article.

Vendola: “Who is the enemy for Puglia and for Italy? Is it Microsoft, or any other software giant?”

Stop: The first enemy is lack of competence and interest in ICT by Public Administrators. Is this the case with Vendola? Maybe not, but frankly this explanation isn’t enough to be sure, even if there are some good parts in it.

Vendola: “today, the scope of public policies is less about chosing among competing software suppliers and more about making the highways of the information society wider.”

Stop: This would be OK if there were competition. But in a world in which (even thanks to the ignorance of politicians) there is one private company that is a de-facto monopolist by several decades, maybe the priority should be to bring competition and freedom of choice back.

Vendola: “I dream of an Italy in which operating system are chosen according to one’s personal taste, rather than to one’s spending possibilities. And I dream of an Italy in which everybody can, with his or her favourite operating system, connect to fast network, working and exchanging files…”

Stop: Yeah, right. We too. But software is a unique technology. Software is a technology that makes legislation, meaning that it can enforce or forbid some “choices” even better than actual laws. If those who are in a position of power (as is the case with Vendola and the Region he leads) choose or use their software in the wrong way, they practically force even other people, who may have other preferences, to use the same software. For example, “working and exchanging files” may be impossible even when broadband is available, if those files are in formats usable only with certain operating systems. And the formats of Microsoft Office create cocaine-like dependency, not to mention that they aren’t recognized as open by the Italian Government.

Besides, you signed a deal with a company that this year, in a few months, first suggested that people should pay extra taxes… to fix Microsoft bugs and then proposed Computer Health Certificates to surf the Internet that would be a Big Brother’s dream. Put all this together, and you shouldn’t be surprised if people get nervous by knowing of such a deal only after you signed it.

Vendola: “So, what I dream are 100Megabit/second connections for everybody… I dream of the Internet, of a network that will allow us to gain some positions in the world.”

Stop: Er, sure, of course but… what does this have to do with deals with software monopolists? The answer is: nothing, just nothing! Let’s not change the subject, please! Sure, nobody doubts that Puglia and, for that matter, almost all of Italy still lack adequate Internet connectivity but this has absolutely nothing to do with the freedom of chosing an operating system. Sharing your vision about hardware infrastructures doesn’t mean at all to automatically approve a deal with a software monopolist. Where’s the link, please?

Vendola: “Puglia choses Open Source Software for its Public Administration, but doesn’t closes its doors to the great international competitors that respect its choice of technological neutrality (this is what in the USA would be called “vendor independence”) and cooperate with Puglia to make of it and of all Southern Italy a center of excellence of this century.”

Stop: If Puglia will really guarantee that technological neutrality is enforced, that is if it will not let any single private company decide by itself to just make Puglia use stuff that’s already a “de-facto standard”, kudos to Vendola and all its staff. We’ll see. Here’s immediately a practical suggestion: impose the adoption of OpenDocument (a worldwide, really open standard for office documents) as the only acceptable format for all the office texts, spreadsheets and presentations that the Region of Puglia produces or accepts by third parties in all its official activities. OpenDocument is usable both with the latest versions of Microsoft Office and with Free/Open Source Software: you can’t get more technological neutrality and freedom than that! (even if Italy’s Constitutional Court stated that it is acceptable to explicitly prefer Free Software)

Vendola: “next week the Regional Council will approve a local law that will adopt Open Source Software as the reference system for e-government in the region.”

Stop: That’s great. Seriously! Just a question: where’s the complete text of that law proposal? Because this is, after all, the most serious problem in all this deal, the problem that we would have had even if Puglia had signed a deal with an Open Source Software supplier: lack of transparency. If anybody made wild and possibly wrong assumption about this deal is because practically nobody knew anything about it until it was signed (including the Italian Association for Free Software, that yesterday officially offered its help to Puglia to implement an Open Source Strategy).

Was all this secrecy really needed, and how long will it last? I ask why, even after the signing, two managers of the Puglia Region told me the italian text is here that:

  • you will get a copy of the Protocol… as soon as it’s ready for publication

  • “Updates to this announcement will be released only after the Protocol has been published in the official regional bulletin”

Now, I (would really like to) imagine that a Protocol like this, about software, wasn’t written by hand, with a quill, on one piece of parchment; and that it doesn’t contain anything that may hurt people privacy or Italy’s National Security. Then why can’t the corresponding file be immediately published on the official website of Puglia?