State contract with Microsoft has its critics

On the part of the Greek government, it is a major attempt to put some order to the civil service; for Microsoft, it is an opportunity to control software piracy within one of its major clients, the Greek civil service. For the opposition, it is a sinister story rife with irregularities, and for digital rights organizations, it is colonialist intervention by the world’s largest multinational firm aimed at harnessing the country to its wagon. As the European Commission begins a new investigation of Microsoft for monopoly practices, Economy and Finance Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis is asking Parliament to ratify an agreement signed with the firm, after a two-year delay, and is meeting with stiff opposition. When Alogoskoufis shook Bill Gates’s hand on February 1, 2006, during the signing of the accord with Microsoft to buy software on favorable terms, the reactions were muted. The opposition parties and digital rights organizations knew they would have the chance to raise objections during the ratification of the accord by Parliament, when they would be informed of the content of the agreement. However, the contract was only tabled last week in Parliament and there have been charges that many sections of it remain unclear. The main section provides for up to 20 percent discounts for the Greek civil service if it gradually signed up for 70,000 user permits for Microsoft products on computers used in ministries, administrative services, state foundations, such as universities and schools, and municipalities between 2006-2008. These products include Windows Office and a number of specialized programs. «Until recently, the Greek civil service, apart from a few major information technology projects, could not know whether all organizations were buying at the government’s favorable prices,» said Professor Vassileios Asimakopoulos, the ministry’s special secretary for digital planning. «Moreover, it was not certain that the products being purchased were all covered by guarantees or were being upgraded regularly. If not, that meant a huge cost in administration and maintenance for each organization and certainly there was no clear picture of the existing situation. That is what we are trying to change with the provisions of the agreement,» he said. Until now, every organization had designed their own computer systems, buying programs from the company at current prices, without any central planning or monitoring. This agreement gives state organizations that register with the system the chance to save money. However, some organizations, such as HELLUG (the Union of Greek Linux Users), Digital Rights and the Greek chapter of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) have issued protests. Instead of the introduction of some uniform order, they see a violation of the rules of free competition, as well as the establishment of favorable conditions for the multinational’s products. International firms such as Canonical and RedHat provide free user permits for their software, as well as free upgrading forever. So the contract is a pointless outlay of tens of millions of euros, they say.