34 Free Software Advocates Elected to European Parliament

Free Software Wins in European Elections

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Free software advocacy groups in Europe signed up 162 pro-free software candidates, 34 of whom were elected to the European Parliament.

In North America, free software is rarely on the political agenda. By contrast, the recently concluded elections for 751 Members of the European Parliament saw 162 pro-free software candidates, 34 of which were elected, thanks in large part to the French advocacy group April and its Free Software Pact.

Founded in 1996, April is the leading free software advocacy group in France. Working closely with the Free Software Foundation and supported by more than 4,000 volunteers, April promotes free software, with conferences and advocacy guides, and the adoption of free software by governments. Over the years, it has opposed legislation and policy that would be harmful to free software, including the European Directive on Software Patents, the international ACTA treaty, and DADVSI, which has been called the French equivalent of the United State’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

“We work to ensure a legal and political environment that’s not working against free software, and, if possible, to create a favorable environment,” says Frederic Couchet, April’s founder and executive director.

The Free Software Pact is not the first effort to lobby political candidates on behalf of free software. FACIL, a Quebecois advocacy group, has been running its Free Software Pledge since 2008, and similar agreements have appeared in local and national elections in Italy and Belgium over the last few years. Also, April itself began making a similar effort in France in 2007, and again during the 2009 European elections.

Asked about the effect of the 2009 Pact, Jeanne Tadeusz, April’s public affairs officer, replied, “While its effects on decision-making is hard to quantify, it has yielded at least three benefits: First, it helped us identify Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) [who are] concerned about free software, and allowed us to contact them more easily. Second, the campaign laid out the bases of a European-wide cooperation between different national free software organizations. We intend to continue cooperating with free software activists in Slovakia, Latvia, etc. in the coming years. And, third, it showed volunteers that candidates to the European Parliament were reachable and could be interested in issues related to free software, hence paving the way for more direct contacts once MEPs were elected.”

Couchet does admit that the 2014 Pact was launched too late for free software to become a major part of the political debate. Yet, even so, its promotion managed to build on the 2009 efforts, with cooperation between more than half a dozen advocacy groups, and the campaign site available in five languages and the Pact itself in 16.

Signing the Pact

In English, the Free Software Pact is a 200-word document. Signatories acknowledge that free software “plays a role in the preservation of essential freedom and the bridging of the digital gap” between the haves and have-nots. They also acknowledge that free software benefits “technological independence and competitiveness,” and requires strong, copyleft licenses to exist.

By subscribing to these statements, signatories agreed to “encourage all administrations, all public or local services, to prefer free software and open standards in their choices, purchases and own developments,” to “support active policies in favour of free software, and oppose any discrimination against it,” and to defend “free software authors’ and users’ rights” in general.

To promote the pact, April and the other groups supporting it “launched a call for volunteers to contact the candidates representing their area, Tadeusz explains. “A collaborative platform was set up so that volunteers could register as responsible for an area or for a specific candidate, and could report [their progress]. A mailing list was also set up to enable volunteers to share their experiences.”

Tadeusz continues, “Once the candidate decided to sign, he or she sent the signed pact back to us,” either directly or through volunteers. If the signed pacts were collected by volunteers, that meeting also became an opportunity “to discuss with them in greater depth various concerns related to free software. In particular, signatories were asked to publicize the fact on their campaign sites, both by the pact organizers, and, in several cases, by their own political parties as well. One candidate, Jan Philipp Albrecht, a member of the German Greens, went so far as to issue a statement demanding that all public organizations in the European Union should switch to free software.

No doubt reflecting April’s role in the campaign, 17 of the elected signatories were French. Elected signatories also tended to be from three main parties: the Greens-European Free Alliance, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and the European United Left-Nordic Green Left – parties that hold 285 seats, a strong minority in the European Parliament.

“We have only one signatory from a right wing party,” Couchet observes, but suggests that these results are an anomaly. “We noticed that signatories of the previous pacts in France have been from almost all parties. Free software being a cross-party concern, we [ordinarily] receive support from politicians of all leanings.”

According to Couchet, the elected signatories include “several that ran in former French presidential elections (José Bové, Eva Joly, Jean-Luc Mélenchon).” We also got a signature from Jan Philipp Albrecht and from Ska Keller from Germany (both Greens). Some of the signatories may not be known to the general public, but they are some of the most influential specialists on free software and freedoms in the digital age.”

Another elected signatory, Florent Marcellesi, represents EuroPrimavera, the Spanish Green party. Asked why he signed, Marcellesi replied, “Because as Greens we totally support free software and the fight for digital rights.”

Another newly elected MEP, Marie-Christine Vergiat, represents the French “Front de Gauche” (The Left Front). Translated into English, her response was, “The protection of private data and private life is ever more illusory, and the latest mass-surveillance scandals have done nothing but strengthen this idea. I am more than ever convinced that access to secure means of communication is a priority and that all citizens of the world have have to be able to benefit from access to free software.”

April has thanked signers of the pact and plans to keep in contact with them between elections, providing them information and urging them to adopt pro-free software opinions. A few, according to Tadeusz, are already meeting with the volunteers who canvassed their support.

Laying Foundations

Having less than 5 percent of MEPs declare their public support might not sound like much. After all, the story comes with no announcement of major policies or shifts in European law. However, the numbers may be somewhat deceptive. For one thing, signatories from the Greens may influence their party to a higher profile advocacy of free software, because that is already party policy. Similarly, although less than a quarter of the signatories were elected, at least some of the unelected may run nationally or locally before the next European elections and continue to support free software at those levels.

Most importantly, the 2014 results could give April and other advocacy groups a foundation to build on. With diligence and luck, the connections made in 2014 could result in even greater support in the next elections. For all the superficially modest results, these are possibilities that most North American free software supporters can only envy.

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