Microsoft ‘Threatened MPs’ Over Open Standards Policy

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Microsoft said it would close facilities in MPs’ constituencies if a planned IT reform went ahead, according to a former Downing Street strategy chief

Microsoft executives allegedly telephoned MPs threatening the closure of facilities in their constituencies if planned IT reforms went ahead, according to comments by David Cameron’s former strategy chief.

Steve Hilton, who worked with Cameron while the Conservatives were in opposition and for another two years in Downing Street, said the lobbying had occurred in reaction to the party’s plans to shift government toward open document standards. Such standards can be used by any software, endangering IT contracts for products such as Microsoft Office.

‘Microsoft phoned MPs’

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“When we proposed this, Microsoft phoned Conservative MPs with Microsoft R&D facilities in their constituencies and said, ‘we will close them down in your constituency if this goes through’,” Hilton told an event in Westminster this week to promote a new book critical of current government and economic systems, according to multiple reports. Among other things, the book criticises corporate lobbying efforts, which Hilton said often lead to “terrible outcomes”.

He said other IT companies had behaved in a similar way, with top executives threatening plant closures in response to proposed policies, but didn’t give further details.

The Conservatives proposed the open-standards policy in 2007, while still in opposition, and began the process of implementing it when brought into the coalition government in 2010. It took effect last year, making the Open Document Format (ODF) the government standard for document sharing.

Spending cut threats

Hilton’s remarks echo those of Rohan Silva, a senior adviser to Cameron on digital policy from 2010 to 2013 and former economic adviser to George Osborne. Rohan last October told the Chief Digital Officer Summit in London that Microsoft had contacted MPs over the standards shift ahead of its announcement in 2007.

“A day or two before we were going to give the speech, a couple of backbench MPs called the office – they said Microsoft had called them saying if we went ahead with the speech on open standards, open architecture and open source, they would cut spending or maybe close research and development centres in the constituencies of the MPs they had called,” Silva reportedly said, adding that Microsoft never contacted party leadership directly.

Microsoft declined to comment for this article, but the company has been openly critical of the policy, telling journalists in 2014 that it was “unproven and unclear” how UK citizens would benefit from it.

Microsoft and its ally the Business Software Alliance reportedly pressured the Cabinet Office over the policy after the coalition government took office in 2010, and in 2012 a consultation on the definition of open standards was delayed after an independent facilitator was found to be in the company’s pay.

Lobbying efforts

In February 2014, ahead of the policy going into effect, Microsoft brought its network of partners in to help overturn the plans to shift to ODF.

Hilton, who left the UK for California in 2012, has an inside view of the world of corporate lobbying, being married to a senior corporate public policy executive.

His wife, Rachel Whetstone, is currently vice president of communications and public policy at search provider Google, and is set to join mobile taxi hailing service Uber in a similar position next month – both companies having been involved in highly public clashes with government regulators.

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