Free Software in Europe -- Position Paper

This proposal was submitted to the Next Generation Internet consulting project at NLnet on 2017-09-27 at 22:27.

Building a Public Discourse for Free Software

We need support to engage with the free software community at European level to fulfill the following agenda. The specific step for which we’re asking support is the funding of our forum platform that serves as the base of operations of the Migration project. We’re aiming at boosting a think-tank involving technicians, philosophers, lawyers, lobbyists to create influential publications and amplifying existing free software action networks at European level.

We’re making a public discourse that differentiates proprietary software from free software on technical ground. With this new understanding, policy-makers in Europe can consciously choose to favor free software instead of wasting public funding on private interests that are unable to deliver a solid public digital infrastructure.

Over the last decade, a number of free software activists, mostly in Europe, have been gathering, trying to alleviate the huge asymmetry of funding between proprietary and free software in general, and especially in public institutions. Small steps have been made, resulting in a growing network of instruments for free software projects to access economic and legal means to sustain them.

But the free software movement is too often perceived as an ethical lobby of entrenched idealists who don’t play well with others. Lately the open-source world has been diluting with corporations historically opposed to free software, and others that make extensive use of free software, eventually promoting and funding some open-source projects, but who are actually working against the ethics of software freedom, such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft (GAFAM).

This recuperation of the free software movement by problematic U.S. companies involved in sapping privacy, fair markets, and technological diversity, send the wrong message, and give a wrong incentive to European policy-makers who make decisions with few actual technical knowledge. Our aim is to develop a public discourse that free software activists and lobbyists can use to counteract this trend in European policy, that appear even more pregnant as the upcoming reform of European Copyright law seems to indicate that the rule of Law may be side-stepped by direct access of software patent owners – often U.S. corporations – to actual means of disrupting the open-source model of code development. (See the current Public Money, Public Code campaign of the FSFE, and the article 13 of the European Copyright law reform under way.)

In order to counteract this trend, we started the NEST (Nouvelles Études Simondoniennes Transdisciplinaires, New Transdisciplinary Simondonian Studies) working group gathering philosophers and technicians interested in developing a public discourse that distinguishes proprietary software from free software on technical grounds.

We’re looking for support to:

  • publish a collective article on this topic
  • extend our reach and publish a review demonstrating the need for free technologies to provide a public digital infrastructure
  • engage and coordinate with existing free software activists and developers in Europe

We’re currently using an online forum to develop this discourse on our spare time. We need resources to professionalize this endeavor in order to provide a European-wide initiative that will amplify the reach of existing lobbies (FSFE, EDRI) and support the free software community out of the idealist margins it has been relegated to, into a strong force to build a sustainable technological society that is respectful of citizens, and economically sound.

The worst-case scenario is already under way. If article 13 is voted into European law, software patent holders may be able to forcefully close key public code repositories that participate in the larger open-source code base without intervention of a judge, eventually breaking software builds and rendering some free software illegal. Anti-reverse-engineering clauses may render software security research illegal and harder to do. This combination of trends may effect in a disruption of the Internet and the free software movement.

The GAFAM are currently in a unique position where they can force competition out by “selling at zero price”, effectively killing any attempt at entering the market. This monopolistic behavior requires huge amounts of capital, and cannot be countered with current laws and tax systems. The GAFAM are known to pay much less taxes than they should. This gives them an unfair advantage only reinforcing itself as they capture more markets in Europe.

Understanding of how technologies work is a key component of inflecting European policy in a direction that is favorable to the Internet and democracy. By gathering support around key technical arguments, we believe we can provide strong political support towards establishing a public digital infrastructure in Europe, based on free software that create open-ended technologies where all technical stakeholders, small and big, can contribute. This will create a highly competitive market not only open to larger corporations with infinite credits, but also to local businesses that can better respond to local needs while still strengthening the common infrastructure.

It will also pave the way to bring forward a strong strategic advantage for the European Union over the USA that currently dominate the Internet markets. For example, once policy-makers have understood the technical influence they can gain from forcing competition on larger corporations, they can implement EU-wide electronic payment systems on free software like GNU TALER that provides transparent sales (taxable), and at the same time privacy-preserving purchases. Such a possibility can bring a halt to many current fraud and tax evasion from larger players in the European Union, reinforcing the European market and helping to balance unfair competition from larger corporations.

These issues must be addressed at several levels and time frames but the first part that this proposal introduces must be addressed by a small group of free software technicians and philosophers to create the public discourse that will provide others the arguments for a shift in policy.

The first part of the effort, i.e., running the NEST WG successfully, will require a full time effort for the coordinator, and several publications by renowned academics over the next year.

The main obstacle is the current misunderstanding of open-ended technologies that allow proprietary software companies to capture public money, instead of having a myriad of free technologies companies building up a public digital infrastructure. But once the discourse is public, it cannot be undone: understanding implies a change of perception, a new perspective on technologies from the part of policy-makers.

We’re aiming for:

  • more engagement with the platform and/or a new successful platform hosted in partnership with FSFE and other stakeholders.
  • concrete outcomes with federating EU free software lobbyists
  • successful impact on the understanding of open-ended technologies by EU policy-makers

Current time estimates aim:

  • to establish a public discourse susceptible to bring a more adequate understanding of open-ended technologies to the public in general, and EU policy makers in particular within 6 to 12 months.
  • to gather forces and create European consortia that can respond to public EU calls following this discourse, involving existing activist (CCC, EDRI, FSFE, LQDN, etc.) and funders (CCT, EdgeFunders, NLnet, TCC) networks, as well as free software unions (e.g., Synpell in France) and related free software companies and university departments, within 18 months.
  • to involve political parties active in the EU Parliament and work in collaboration with the above-mentioned networks to pass legislation favorable to a public digital infrastructure, 6 to 12 months from now, within 36 months.
  • to catalyze local businesses so they can use the public discourse to gain local markets with their cities and at regional level, 8 to 12 months from now, for the next 5 years.

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