THE THREAT OF REPRISALS from Microsoft lawyers has stopped Becta, the UK's technology quango for schools, from publishing the details of the three-year megadeal it agreed with Microsoft in April.
Microsoft already forbids Becta from saying how much money UK schools spend on its software. The US multinational has also forbidden the British people from knowing how much it is charging their schools for its software.
Becta refused to satisfy a Freedom of Information request made by the INQUIRER for details of the latest Microsoft schools megadeal, "after consultation with Microsoft."
"The documents are predominantly based on confidential material provided by Microsoft which was provided on the clear understanding that it would remain confidential," said Becta. I
f Becta, a UK government quango, published details of schools' Microsoft spending, it "could give rise to an actionable breach of confidence by Microsoft against us," it said. This was a "considerable risk", it added. There has been growing disquiet in the public sector in the UK and Europe about the ways in which Microsoft might protect the monopoly it has in desktop software, and thus keep its prices artificially high, absorb public money that might be best spent elsewhere, and suppress innovative competitors from breaking through.
Though Becta negotiated a secret schools discount with Microsoft, it also complained to the European Commission that Microsoft's anti-competitive practices operated even to the detriment of education. A UK analyst who asked not to be named, said it was possible to guestimate that UK schools spent about £55m a year on Microsoft software, based on a rare disclosure of a deal the NHS signed with Microsoft in 2004.
Microsoft did not want to disclose its pricing information to competitors, said Becta. Yet open source software suppliers, which are the only credible competitors to Microsoft, give their software to schools for free. However, there were other reasons why Becta should keep the memorandum of understanding (MOU), it signed with Microsoft in April a secret.
"Disclosure of the MOU would create a risk to Microsoft's commercial interests as knowledge of the terms of their dealings with us may put them at a disadvantage in dealings with other national procurement agencies," said Becta.
Microsoft is embroiled in problematic negotiations over separate MOUs with Newham London Borough Council, its public sector show home, and the Office of Government Commerce, which acts as procurement sheriff for the whole UK public sector.* Becta said there could also be repercussions in disclosure for itself: "We have concluded that disclosure of any part of the MOU would prejudice the commercial interests of Becta and of schools throughout the UK because the significant savings achieved under the MOU would be put at risk," it said. "We believe that our future negotiating position with Microsoft would be weakened and we would not be confident of our continuing ability to obtain the best deal possible for those UK schools that choose to purchase Microsoft products," it added.
That is something of a catch-22 for UK schools: if they disclose what Microsoft's pricing, Microsoft might not give such a good discount, but if Microsoft gets to keep its public sector pricing secret, it might help prevent new competitors from making headway. That is not to say that Microsoft has behaved uncompetitively by keeping its pricing and market size secret, even if it is the only game in town.
What business is it of UK tax payers how much a US corporation charges their schools anyway? µ
* More on the MOUs
Newham council published the details of its last MOU in satisfaction of an FOI request in 2005. Becta refused to do the same, but it shares one important trait with Newham and that is official confusion over its state of play with Microsoft. Newham told the INQUIRER in April that it signed a second MOU with Microsoft last year. It then said in an FOI response last month that it had merely extended the last MOU, but it has just started negotiations over a new one. Becta said in May that it signed a new three-year MOU in April, back-dated to January. It now says in its FOI response that there is only one MOU, which has now been extended twice since 2004 and will have run 11 years by the time it concludes, without a single person in Britain know how much money schools spent with Microsoft under the deal, nor at what price.
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