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FoxNews.com readers slam pro-Microsoft column

‘Astroturfing’ suspected

Readers of FoxNews.com have taken issue with a column on the website that seemed to promote Microsoft interests, without declaring the author’s connections with the company.

The 30 September column, ‘Massachusetts Should Close Down OpenDocument’, was written by James Prendergast, executive director of the Americans for Technology Leadership, an organisation Microsoft co-founded.

In the piece, Prendergast criticised the US state of Massachusetts’ decision to support an open document format for its official published documents, a move that would limit or even eliminate the use of Microsoft ‘s Office software in state government agencies.

Several of the letters, published on Wednesday on FoxNews.com, accuse Microsoft of trying to promote its own interests by presenting Prendergast, writing for a Microsoft-linked organisation, as an unbiased observer. This practice is known as ‘astroturfing’, defined as a formal public-relations campaign that tries to mask itself as a spontaneous, grass-roots reaction to an event or opinion.

Massachusetts last month finalised a plan to standardise the published documents of its government agencies on OpenDocument (short for Open Document Format for Office Applications), an XML-based file format developed within the standards body Oasis (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards).

“I think the issue here is that Microsoft has taken a strategic stand not to provide data in this format, for commercial reasons, and now is trying, via James Prendergast, to create doubt in the minds of your readers to keep its products in control,” wrote reader Joe Moore, according to the news website.

“[Prendergast] makes a complete hash of the facts surrounding the state government’s choice of OpenDocument for public records,” wrote another reader, Brian Thomas of St Louis. “Citing almost exclusively other Microsoft-funded organisations and well-known Microsoft apologists from the analyst and journalism communities, he makes the following unfounded, misleading and/or simply false statements: ‘The policy represents an attack on market-based competition, which in turn will hurt innovation.’”

Michael Matsuzaki wrote to FoxNews.com that Prendergast’s article is intended to frighten the public away from adopting open document standards by spreading “FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt)”.

“[Prendergast] ignorantly states that Massachusetts’ new policy ‘promises to burden taxpayers with new costs and to disrupt how state agencies interact with citizens, business and organisations’,” he wrote. “Nothing can be further from the truth.”

Industry pundits long have accused Microsoft of astroturfing to sway public opinion. In fact, the company was caught red-handed in 1998 when papers were leaked to the Los Angeles Times that showed a Microsoft public-relations campaign behind a series of what appeared to be letters from real citizens protesting hearings that preceded the US Department of Justice antitrust case.

Also on Wednesday, FoxNews.com published a note in which it apologised for not disclosing in the original column that Microsoft is a founding member of the organisation Prendergast leads. “Mr Prendergast’s affiliation with Microsoft should have been stated clearly in the article,” the statement said.

A spokesman for Microsoft’s public-relations agency, Waggener Edstrom, declined to comment on Prendergast’s column. But he wrote in an email statement that Microsoft’s position on the Massachusetts decision is that procurement preferences limit innovation, reduce customer choice and ultimately increase cost.

Prendergast did not return requests for comment on Thursday.

Massachusetts expects its agencies to gradually migrate away from productivity suites that do not support OpenDocument, with a target implementation date of 1 January 2007.

Microsoft Office and other productivity suites that Massachusetts government agencies now use, such as Lotus Notes and WordPerfect, use proprietary document formats. Suites that support OpenDocument include OpenOffice, Sun Microsystems’ StarOffice, KOffice and IBM Workplace.


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