Yesterday, I found myself accidentally live-blogging some thoughts on the EU Open Source Policy Summit 2023 event organized by OpenForum Europe. I say “accidental”, because I didn’t plan on doing so, but the first post got enough interest that I continued. It’s only fair to summarize my impressions today, after the fact.
I’m leaving the conference with some mixed feelings. It’s been very clear that decades of FOSS advocacy have only recently gained traction, and there is still a lot of work to be done to bridge the gap between politics and FOSS.
At the same time, panelists correctly pointed out that Open Source Policy Offices, such as the European Commission OSPO are very new institutions, dating back to only 2-3 years ago – and many member states of the EU have created similar offices to help with this work.
In the end, this leaves me largely hopeful for the future of FOSS in the European Union, and indeed the world.
The politics angle to FOSS is briefly summarized, and every politician that presented was pushing more or less the same angle: It's the economy, stupid!.
That deserves some more explanation, because it’s not quite as simple as that, either. It breaks down to a few simple points:
- In the software industry in general, the EU has been lagging behind the USA.
- Increasingly, this is seen as a risk not only to the economy, but as a political risk to digital sovereignty.
- In order to catch up, the European Union needs to embrace openness, as only open collaboration can help here. The phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” was used.
- Next to funding FOSS, the political focus for this year is turning education towards imparting a better understanding of FOSS and open collaboration.
- Finally, it is also clear to politicians that “european values”, which they more or less equate with human rights, are best served by the bottom-up approach that FOSS embodies.
Simon Phipps from OSI made the excellent point that politician’s access to software stakeholders is still very much defined by the industrial revolution: they have established connections to producers, consumers, and workers. But FOSS contributors tend to have a mixture of concerns that crosses these boundaries, which creates a fourth mode that falls between the cracks at this time.
OpenForum Europe is mostly an industry association, so a heavy industry presence was to be expected. Most of what was being said by industry representatives is largely uninteresting to repeat, but a few points stand out, even if they were accidentally made.
First and foremost, there is the above mentioned gap between FOSS practitioners and politics. And despite decades of FOSS advocacy, industry managed to step neatly into this gap. As a consequence, a lot of what politicians think they know about FOSS is actually only the industry’s view.
In the past, that view was heavy on fear, uncertainty and doubt. But in recent years, FOSS businesses have realized they can sell FOSS to politics as a solution to e.g. digital sovereignty or economic concerns – as long as it is the FOSS solutions they provide.
Consequently, industry representatives mostly spoke to the European Commission at the event, influencing policy in their favour. This is to be expected, but it highlights very strongly how much the FOSS community has to step up its game.
Several speakers and panelists called out industry #OpenWashing, which I have also previously called #FOSSWashing. Gaël Blondelle of the Eclipse Foundation did so, as well as Simon Phipps and Carlo Piana of the Open Source Initivative. I’m very glad that these voices also made it to the ears of the European Commission.
It’s particularly interesting to see that some of the organizations guilty of this practice were, of course, in the room.
The Rise of OSPOs
As mentioned before, OSPOs have been cropping up in various EU member states, precisely to help facilitate communications between politicians and the community. Here, some excellent news for the future of FOSS is hidden: every panelist or speaker adjacent to an OSPO or funding agency (more on that below) showed a high level of understanding of the FOSS community at large.
This is a massive win for the community that is easily overlooked. I myself have complained to the EC OSPO that their public code repository is weirdly gated, which contradicts the spirit of permissionless collaboration.
But at the conference, it also became very obvious that these kinds of compromises are due to the amount of work ahead of OSPOs, in actually opening up the political approach to software and FOSS. At the time, they can’t always do the things they know they need to do – and are working hard to change that.
If you have an OSPO in your country, it’s probably a great idea to reach out!
Frustratingly little has been made of civil society’s role as a FOSS stakeholder. Of course, plenty of members from foundations were invited as panelists and gave their views; this is FOSS advocacy as we know it.
But I heard mention only twice in the entire day, that foundations may be the right stakeholders to fund in order to push FOSS forward.
Yes, industry maintains a large chunk of FOSS. It’s politically expedient and correct to involve industry. But this point of view sees only the tip of the iceberg, and ignores the vast amounts of FOSS developers that work on projects outside of their paid job.
Nonetheless, the point was raised, and by my impression, it was well received.
While there was a panel of funding FOSS, I found it sadly devoid of actual funding discussions.
It’s continuous work with the European Commission that has allowed these funds to emerge, and have lightweight funding programmes – as opposed to the Horizon Europe calls from which some of the money flows.
The calculation for giving the top most critical FOSS projects security audits comes to millions – but the fallout of the flaw caused billions in damage.
I had a chance to speak to some members of the European Commission in charge of funding. I think it’s well worth pointing out that these folk are very much trying to do the right thing for FOSS.
The conversations here highlight to me how the EC stands and tries to negotiate between FOSS and politics. They still have some learning to do of their own, but also have political concerns to weigh.
- I managed to impress on them that a lot of funding to date is very much focused on objectives. FOSS projects also need funding for maintenance, which is currently very underserved.
- Similarly, and maybe more in the Interpeer Project’s direct interest, this focus on objectives is informed by industry’s current needs – not on improving stuff in general. I managed to highlight that longer term, “moonshot” type funding is also necessary.
- Finally, as politicians were impressing the need to develop citizen’s skills in FOSS, it was important to me to let the EC know that some of those skills are not actually software related. We’re seeing more designers move into FOSS, but there are fairly few project or product management practitioners spending time in the community. Some of the learning that needs to happen lies in incentivizing these and other folk to join the FOSS community.
A number of miscellaneous points stood out to me:
- Calling for open collaboration between FOSS companies is a good thing. The point was that each player attempting to compete with well-established proprietary vendors is not a winning game; instead, concentrating on one vertical and opening up APIs to collaborate with other entities is. While I agree with this point from a business perspective, from an innovation perspective, it implies that nobody should try to improve on the state of the art by offering an alternative solution.
- Given the industry focus, it was to be expected but very disappointing to only hear
the use of “open source”, never “free” or “libre” software.
- As a related point, the “digital sovereignty” term was identified as the term that opened up FOSS to politics – both “free software” and “open source” are abstract terms divorced from political concerns, while sovereignty is the stuff of politics.
- The term “permissionless innovation” was used a fair bit, and it’s good that people have an understanding that this is what powers FOSS. At the same time, access to funding is currently still reserved to those “permitted” to innovate by the grant making organization. True permissionless innovation requires a significant shift in policy here.
- Interoperability is seen as a key factor to digital sovereignty, as it permits swapping out services in a larger architecture. It reminds me of a friend and colleague who would chant “interoperate or die!” some twenty years ago. To me, it’s a clear reminder how slow political shifts are.
- In terms of cybersecurity, the point was well made that there is not much of a difference between FOSS and propriety software here.
In conclusion to this summary, I find myself actually very hopeful for the state of FOSS in Europe. Yes, industry influence on politics is still overly large. No, politics do not yet understand the FOSS community in general.
But enough has shifted in these last five years or so with new funds opening up from the European Commission and OSPOs springing up in governments all over the European Union, that things do feel like the tentative beginnings of a very significant shift.
We cannot lose momentum here, however.
Update 2023-02-08: The recording of the summit can now be found below. Do you think the above captured the event well enough? Let us know!