Microsoft deal with The Hague worries Dutch politicians

An agreement between Microsoft and the city of The Hague, Netherlands about electronic government services for the city has raised privacy and accessibility concerns amongst Dutch local and national politicians as well as citizens of The Hague.

On Wednesday, GroenLinks, a left-wing opposition party, outlined the concerns in a letter sent to the responsible minister. Electronic government services should in the future allow citizens to do business with the city online. This includes applying for permits, paying local taxes, and buying a new passport or driver's license.

GroenLinks has two main concerns about Microsoft's involvement. First, the party is concerned about the software maker's bad reputation in the area of IT security, and consequently worries about the confidentiality of the data passing through the future system. Second, GroenLinks is concerned about the possibility that Microsoft would design the electronic-government services system to only work with the company's own Internet Explorer browser.

"The government needs to ensure that private information from citizens can't fall into the hands of others. Government information also needs to be accessible for everybody," explained a spokesman for GroenLinks, adding that strong privacy guarantees are essential if The Hague does plan to let data pass through Microsoft's systems.

A bad example has been set in the U.K. where Microsoft software powers the centralized registration service for all e-government services in the U.K., according to Dutch privacy and digital rights activist Maurice Wessling. GroenLinks also mentions the U.K. example in its letter.

"By using noncompatible technology the U.K. government Web site is not accessible for all browser types. Additionally the site doesn't use standard digital certificates. Microsoft forces consumers to use its software," said Wessling.

Wessling prizes the German government for promoting the use of alternative software, such as the Linux operating system. GroenLinks also wonders if the government shouldn't strive to avoid monopolies and get its software from a number of vendors.

"I am afraid that most politicians and managers in the Netherlands can only come up with one software package name: Microsoft Office," said Wessling.

The Hague last week announced that it would base most of its electronic government services on Microsoft technology. The mayor of The Hague and Microsoft's President and Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer, who was in the Netherlands as part of a European tour to promote Microsoft's OfficeXP, signed the deal.

Shortly after the signing, citizens of The Hague voiced their opposition online. GroenLinks and a local political party heard their voice.

A spokesman for Microsoft in the Netherlands declined to comment on the issues and referred all questions to The Hague. However, nobody at The Hague was available for comment. Microsoft did send a copy of the agreement with The Hague that states that "democracy and privacy are of the utmost importance" in this project.

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