Public schools making MS Office mandatory

Paul Boddie paul at
Thu Apr 7 14:53:39 UTC 2016

On Thursday 7. April 2016 13.14.14 Guido Arnold wrote:
> I produced a summary of a longer debate on the German discussion
> list which addressed a lot of aspects that may be relevant to other
> European countries. Please comment here on this list or per PM. The
> text below is also available as a blog post [0].

Thanks for bringing this to our attention! There's a lot of material here, 
which is much appreciated in illuminating the matter, but I only want to make 
a few remarks.

> The [1] trigger was a letter that a school kid brought home, informing
> the parents that a Windows 10 device with MS Office 2013/2016 will be
> made mandatory to participate in class.
> As outrageous this sounds for Free Software supporters, I fear that
> this is getting common practice throughout Europe and that most
> parents accept it with a shrug. I’ll be happy for any feedback
> dispelling or confirming this fear.

Ignoring the general acceptance in wider society of needing to have certain 
products or to be using certain services, I have observed that public 
institutions tend to promote products rather than standards (and to lie about 
doing so, too). People are more inclined to go along with this if they don't 
have to buy the products themselves, so if an organisation obtains some kind 
of site licence (or whatever the preferred term is these days), they may even 
perceive such policies as perks.

Naturally, the actual costs involved in acquiring a product and "giving" it to 
everyone are obscured, with decision-makers insisting that costs in licensing 
agreements are "confidential" or "commercially sensitive". I have documents 
obtained in a transparency request where the figures are redacted with exactly 
that justification. (I don't see how a company should be able to tell a public 
organisation to conceal how much it spent on a particular product, but then 
again, I don't have a generous legal fund to pursue the answer to this, 

What might change things for people is when they themselves have to bear the 
costs of such decisions, which historically has resulted in people making 
illicit copies of the proprietary software concerned. I would guess that 
decision-makers usually end up with those site licence agreements just to 
avoid protests, absorbing those costs in other areas somehow. (How they are 
absorbed is another area of concern given that educational institutions are 
usually chronically underfunded. This also impacts individuals, as you note 
elsewhere, because schools might start asking for larger contributions for 
extra-curricular activities, for example.)


>  Advocating Free Software or demand our rights?
> It was discussed whether the focus of the letter should be to convince
> the school that Free Software is a great thing or rather that they are
> obliged to leave the minority the right to keep using the systems of
> their choice.
> Some may argue that the majority is using Windows anyway and simply
> won’t care. Does that entitle a public school to force those who do
> care to give up their freedom and privacy?
> Are we in such a weak position that we have to beg the institutions to
> let us use Free Software or is there any legal ground where we can
> claim the right to do so?

In various places, regulations were passed to mandate open standards. 
Unfortunately, Microsoft has undermined standards processes and got its flawed 
office document formats onto the approved list in many places. Still, even 
institutions publishing in Microsoft's XML formats do continue to publish PDF 
files in order to prevent information leaks and to produce a definitive "read-
only" version of a document.

One should still point out the benefits of Free Software that can do the same 
job. Maybe we're talking about a situation not dissimilar to that addressed by 
the PDF Readers campaign.


>  Is this practice even legal?
> Public schools force their students/pupils to use a certain operating
> system with [8]known back doors, with a certain office suite using a
> certain cloud software and various kinds of privacy issues, e.g.:
> storing personal data in a different jurisdiction.
> Is this practice legal? The answer seems to vary depending on which
> federal state in Germany you look at. How is it in your area? Do you
> know any rules or laws that would prohibit this kind of practice?
> A while back in Switzerland, an [9]expert group recommended to use
> Free Software after analysing Microsoft's offer called live at edu back
> then due to privacy and lock-in concerns. Data protection law would
> prohibit the data collection mentioned in the proposed contract.

There is, and will be, a "head in the sand" approach to all this. When my 
former employer introduced Microsoft Exchange, the suggestion that the use of 
cloud services (in other words, Office 365 or Live at Edu) would be next was 
regarded as absurd given the legal constraints (that data protection rules 
prohibited data going off into some random cloud location), but fast-forward 
to today and the decision-makers are introducing Office 365 anyway and are 
making employees consent to the usage agreements (while telling them not to 
use the cloud for "sensitive information").

Add in the "safe harbour" decision, and one might think that institutions 
would be backtracking, but in fact they'll probably point to what each other 
are doing, with everybody following the most reckless of them all. Nobody 
wants to have to properly finance computing infrastructure (despite it being 
historically inexpensive) when nobody else seems to be doing so. (Think of 
this as being like companies not wanting to pay reasonable levels of tax 
because it would disadvantage them in competition with their tax-evading 

>  Proposed analogies


> I am grateful to Bernd who pointed out that these analogies are
> missing a crucial aspect. What shoes I wear will not change the way I
> run and I’ll be as fast with a similar pair of shoes as with the ones
> I was asked to buy for class. A certain schoolbook will not change the
> way I read nor change my ability to read or understand complex texts
> in other books.

I think that the argument here is that the analogies are not extensive enough, 
but I personally feel that analogies need only be accurate or potent enough to 
illustrate the absurdity of the situation. Actually, schoolbooks as an analogy 
might not be so bad given that some treatments of a topic in a book might vary 
such that one publisher's books might not be as comprehensive or even as 
adequate as another's (or might even be misleading or plain incorrect if you 
consider certain topics and the political meddling that goes on in certain US 

I lazily fell back on that old staple - the car analogy - when responding to 
demands for proprietary software at my former employer [*]. Given that a 
person had claimed that they had to have Exchange because they like Outlook 
(and thus demonstrating the way in which curated technological dependencies 
cause lock-in), I suggested that it would be like demanding that the city 
choose Ford to run all the public transport because someone likes their Ford 
Mondeo. Obviously, the two situations are not exactly the same - if they were, 
it wouldn't be an analogy any more - but the idea was to show that demanding 
extensive, arbitrary and costly change on the basis of personal preference or 
bias is absurd, attempting to do so with a scenario where "common sense" would 
help to confirm this in the reader's mind.

[*] (in Norwegian)


>  Sample lesson with OneNote
> Bernd pointed us to a tutorial [12]video how OneNote can be used in
> class and had to admit that it looks pretty impressive and that there
> is probably no Free Software alternative which would allow a similar
> work flow.
> Bernd is missing an easy to use alternative. Without these
> alternatives, it is difficult to object (object in the sense of
> “successfully convince others”).

Any strategy would not be complete without Free Software being able to offer 
competitive alternatives. This requires investment by forward-thinking 
organisations because the work required is often too extensive or too 
laborious for volunteers to be expected to do it all, especially within a 
reasonable period of time.

Unfortunately, many organisations do not see such work as a priority - even 
those already making good money from Free Software - leaving people to 
erroneously conclude that Free Software (or open source, as they usually put 
it) has to be developed in a perpetually under-resourced environment as if 
that were a badge of pride. As long as this continues to be so, it will remain 
difficult to make progress with mere advocacy and demands for adherence to 
applicable laws and regulations.


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