28 September 2004

Microsoft goes to Canberra

Last week, I read an article by CIO Magazine on Microsoft's agressive federal lobbying. In summary, Microsoft is now the biggest and most influential technology lobbying group in the country. Given the environment in this field, where government responsibility is fragmented and unclear, a strong lobbyist such as Microsoft can have a powerful effect on policy.

The is potentially worrying for Australia given our recent free trade agreement with the United States. Under the Intellectual Property chapter of the agreement any rights granted to American parties are automatically respected by Australian courts. As we know, a large part of Microsoft's ongoing business is concerned with the protection of intellectual property in the software industry. Their lobbying for changes to federal technology law in the United States can therefore has a direct effect on our software industry.

What might be the Australian impact of Microsoft's lobbying? Well, from the article they have a clear aim of limiting the spread of open-source software. As a user of many high quality open-source packages (Linux, Firefox, Apache and more), I'm concerned that my government might eliminate the use of these better alternatives. And they are better alternatives. In terms of stability, security and customisation (all crucial for the public sector), many open-source packages win hands-down.

There's also the risk of small software developers will fall under pressure to protect their intellectual property through patents. In an environment of increased litigation, these small businesses would also need to take legal steps to defend their work. Could these organisations defend themselves if they were challenged by the "lobbying machine" of Microsoft? I seriously doubt it.

What can we do about this worrying development? As the article says, lobbying the government in the US is commonplace and expected of all corporations that can afford it. This means nothing is likely to stop Microsoft lobbying, nor can we stop this lobbying affecting the votes of senators and congressmen. Fortunately, the trade agreement stipulates that both Australia and the US must respect intellectual property rights granted by the other. We need to call on our government to legislate rights to the consumers of software intellectual property, to counter the commercial lobbying pushing the other way.