Free Software is Europe’s second chance

I have watched with some interest the latest consultation organized by the European Commission about funding priorities for research, software and cloud initiatives. The Digital Agenda for Europe has been a hot topic for a just a few years now and such a set of policies will create some real opportunities in Europe. Of course, the devil lies in the details, but it dawned on me that in all the years I worked on digital policies at the European level,  I had never really expressed why I think that Free Software is a strategic opportunity for Europe.

Contrary to a popular belief, international trade is actually quite regulated, not just among countries but among continents and economic regions as well. On a regular basis, these regulations (trade agreements, treaties) are discussed again among governments, revised, restricted or expanded. Such has been the case between the U.S. and the European Union since the sixties. Without embarking into a lengthy depiction of these bilateral trade negotiations, let’s cut to the case and state that while Europeans pevailed in some areas (food safety standards, environment etc.) the U.S. both managed to impose standards and their influence in the field of computers and microprocessors (among other things). Independantly of these trade agreements, Silicon Valley emerged thanks to a combination of high performing and flexible universities, available capital and direct or indirect government funding. These factors enabled entrepreneurs and adventurers of all kinds to experiment, fail and sometimes succeed in amazing ways.

This left Europe as an area which had (and has) lots of talent, but where the I.T. sector was anything but  priviledged. As this industry, like several others, works very much on the law of emerging returns of networks, entrepreneurs of Europe, engineers and scientists became attracted to Silicon Valley, moved there and joined the system that has been working so well for decades now. Europe did not take notice. It was only well into the first decade of the twenty-first century that the thinking in Brussels shifted from a relatively passive attitude to a more proactive stance, creating funding opportunities for the software industry and research.

Unfortunately for Europe, I and many others have felt the lingering influence of U.S. based software vendors in the decision making process of the European Institutions. In a sense it helped educating a few decision makers on the reality and the state of the art of the I.T. industry. But it also helped entrenching the already strong positions of some of these vendors.

While Free Software was not born in Europe, the relative disadvantage of the European I.T. sector compared to the U.S. can be greatly mitigated by enabling Free and Open Source Software models across the I.T. ecosystem and the industries increasignly relying on software as one of their core components. It is important to realize that the objective of building a Europe-based I.T. industry as strong or as rich as the U.S. one is a delusion. You cannot turn back the time, and the circumstances that led to the booming of the U.S. I.T. sector cannot be replicated entirely. I am aware the European Commission was sold on the idea that somehow we could replicate America’s crazy  software patent system and that somehow this would strengthen our economy. I am curious to see where that will end, but I’m very pessimistic in that regard.

Now, I do believe that if we think in competitive terms, we are in a David vs. Goliath situation. The story of David and Goliath, however, is not one where David gets super-powers and super weapons in order to win over his opponent. It is the story of David who, facing a formidable enemy, gets a boost of self-confidence thanks to his faith in the Creator and fights using the weapons he knows best, in other terms, the weapons of the weak, despite the many suggestions to use supposedly more effective ones by his Court. This is a powerful idea: it suggests that in competition one does not have to use the same means as its competitor, but that one can use its own strong points.

Europe has no strong proprietary vendor eco-system. We should be happy if these vendors grow and strive, but ultimately we must know that Free Software projects and companies can create jobs and values if we ensure that Free Software and its values are “enabled by default” across the many industries using, distributing or consuming software. Choosing a more “traditional” path leads us to hedge bets we may not be willing to or could not afford.

What does this “default to Free Software” mean? Here are a few broad ideas:

  • Mandatory Free Software and Open Standards for public procurement of I.T. solutions and data
  • Free Software grants for developers working on critical components, such as security. After all everyone benefits from their work, including proprietary vendors, and no one feels compelled to ever give back
  • Free Software mandatory in Education
  • Funding for software research only possible for components licensed under a Free and Open Source Software licence
  • Europe-wide legal entity model for Free Software projects, enabling flexibility and simple, transparent administration
  • Dissemination and education of Free Software community practices

These broad areas are an opportunity for Europe so that we can grow the number of jobs thanks to a strong and healthy Free Software-based companies, ventures, and projects hosted and operating in Europe. I know that the European decision makers can count on the entities who help shape Free Software everyday, among them The Document Foundation, KDE, OW2, the MariaDB foundation and many, many others. We are Europeans. We are talented and proud to serve our cultures and our continent.

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