So, what good is a government that refuses even to state a position on international standards? That's right; they didn't want to decide what's best for the country, what's best for their constituents, or even what those who elected them want to hear. Instead, they just sat back and let industry buy a decision.

In particular, we're talking about something that a lot of Americans use every day: computerized office documents. If you want to read a document made by someone else, it has to be in a format your computer understands. Some computer documents you might like to read include advice from a friend, a presentation, or a law that might apply to you.

I think we can agree that these could be important. So how will we ensure that we can read them? We'll all have to use the same software, of course.

But wait! That's not feasible. After all, some of these documents come from other countries, where our software doesn't support their language (allowing other programs to read the same document is called "interoperability"). Some come from friends with older software, who can't afford to upgrade (reading older documents is called "compatibility"). And besides, do we really want only one program making all the documents? What would happen when we discover it has some fatal flaw? And wouldn't the company that provides the program have unprecedented power?

There's a better solution: make the document format a standard. Then anyone can write a program that reads or creates a document. You get both interoperability *and* compatibility!

I'm glad that's settled. Now, what should the standard look like?

Well, since it's more than just America involved here, that's an international question, and one that will be handled by the government. That's why we elect our representatives, after all: to speak for all of us and make the decisions we don't have time to make ourselves. I'm sure they'll consider the characteristics of the best possible solution and pick the document format that matches most closely.

Just kidding! They're too busy raising money for the election, more than a year and a half away. Instead, they'll let the company who writes the most popular program make the decision! Of course, that company has a blatant interest in becoming the sole provider of a program used to make documents all over the world; that would give it the unprecedented power I was talking about earlier.

This is a company with loads of power and money already; a company that has already been prosecuted once for monopolistic practices, but ignores that and acts with impunity; a company that can lie long and loudly, then buy its way out of trouble after the damage is done. If you haven't heard about what Microsoft has done, you're deliberately deluding yourself.

Of course, their current document formats are proprietary. No other country will agree to accept them as a standard. So Microsoft has created a poison apple: a document format that looks perfect on the surface, but is actually so full of vagaries, exceptions and encumbrances that it kills any competition (by preventing interoperability): OOXML.

Any idiot can see that outsourcing this decision to one company, Microsoft or anyone else, is a chump's idea. So, to avoid looking like chumps, they made a committee of companies! That's right; to voice an opinion on a topic that affects you directly, you must be a US company, attend two meetings, and pay $800.

Congratulations; we just made the government tax.

So, if you were a big, rich company intent on controlling all the documents written in the world, what would you do? Did I hear you say "stack the committee"? Why, aren't you clever, that's exactly what happened! Luckily, accepting OOXML as a standard required a 2/3 vote; the decision was avoided by exactly one vote. They'll be voting again later. (Exercise for the student: if you were a big, rich company...)

I think it's obvious this decision should be open for public comment. It affects a lot of people, not just companies with $800 and some free time. I'm writing my representatives to tell them so.