09.03.20

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An FSFE Fellowship Representative’s Dilemma

Posted in Free/Libre Software at 10:53 pm by Guest Editorial Team

Reprinted with permission from the Free Software Fellowship

The FSFE Fellowship representative role may appear trivial, but it is surprisingly complicated. What’s best for FSFE, what is best for the fellows and what is best for free software are not always the same thing.

As outlined in the blog Who are/were the FSFE Fellowship?, fellows have generously donated over EUR 1,000,000 to FSFE and one member of the community recently bequeathed EUR 150,000. Fellows want to know that this money is spent well, even beyond their death.

FSFE promised them an elected representative, which may have given them great reassurance about the checks and balances in the organization. In practice, FSFE hasn’t been sincere about this role and it is therefore a representative’s duty to make fellows aware of what representation means in practice right now.

This blog has been held back for some time in the hope that things at FSFE would improve. Alas, that is not the case and with the annual general meeting in Berlin only four weeks away, now is the time for the community to take an interest. As fellowship representative, I would like to invite members of the wider free software community to attend as guests of the fellowship and try to help FSFE regain legitimacy.

Born with a conflict of interest

According to the FSFE e.V. constitution, as it was before elections were abolished, the Fellows elected according to §6 become members of FSFE e.V.

Yet all the other fellows who voted, the people being represented, are not considered members of FSFE e.V. Sometimes it is possible to view all fellows together as a unit, a separate organization, The Fellowship. Sometimes not all fellows want the same thing and a representative has to view them each as individuals.

fsfe rep coi

Any representative of this organization, The Fellowship and the individual fellows, has a strong ethical obligation to do what is best for The Fellowship and each fellow.

Yet as the constitution recognizes the representative as a member of FSFE e.V., some people have also argued that he/she should do what is best for FSFE e.V.

What happens when what is best for The Fellowship is not in alignment with what is best for FSFE e.V.?

It is also possible to imagine situations where doing what is best for FSFE e.V. and doing what is best for free software in general is not the same thing. In such a case the representative and other members may want to resign.

Censorship of the Fellowship representatives by FSFE management

On several occasions management argued that communications to fellows need to be censored adapted to help make money. For example, when discussing an email to be sent to all fellows in February about the risk of abolishing elections, the president warned:

“people might even stop to support us financially”

if they found out about the constitutional changes. He subsequently subjected the email to censorship modification by other people.

This was not a new theme: in a similar discussion in August 2017 about communications from the representatives, another senior member of the executive team had commented:

“It would be beneficial if our PR team could support in this, who have the experience from shaping communication in ways which support retention of our donors.”

A few weeks later, on 20 March, FSFE’s management distributed a new censorship communications policy, requiring future emails to prioritize FSFE’s interests and mandating that all emails go through the censors PR team. As already explained, a representative has an ethical obligation to prioritize the interests of the people represented, The Fellowship, not FSFE’s interests. The censorship communications policy appears deliberately incompatible with that obligation.

As the elected representative of a 1500-strong fellowship, it seems obscene that communications to the people represented are subject to censorship by the very staff the representative scrutinizes. The situation is even more ludicrous when the organization concerned claims to be an advocate of freedom.

This gets to the core of our differences: FSFE appeared to be hoping a representative would be a stooge, puppet or cheerleader who’s existence might “support retention of … donors”. A committed representative would not see themself like that. Given the generosity of fellows and the large amounts of time and money contributed to FSFE, a representative is obliged to act as a genuine representative, ensuring money already donated is spent effectively on the desired objectives and ensuring that communications are accurate. FSFE management appear to hope their clever policy document will mute those ambitions.

Days later, on 25 March, FSFE management announced the extraordinary general meeting to be held in the staff office in Berlin, to confirm the constitutional change and as a bonus, try to abruptly terminate the last representative. Were these sudden changes happening by coincidence, or rather, a nasty reprisal for February’s email about constitutional changes? The representative had simply been trying to fulfill those ethical obligations to fellows and had suddenly become persona non grata.

When people first saw this termination proposal in March, it really made them feel quite horrible, especially the representative. They were basically holding a gun to the representatives head and planning a vote on whether to pull the trigger. For all purposes, it looked like gangster behavior happening right under my nose in a prominent free software organization.

Both the absurdity and hostility of these tactics was further underlined by taking this vote on the representative’s role behind his back on 26 May, while he was on a 10 day trip to the Balkans pursuing real free software activities in Albania and Kosovo, starting with OSCAL.

In the end, while the motion to abolish elections was passed and fellows may never get to vote again, only four of the official members of the association backed the abusive motion to knife the last representative and that motion failed. Nonetheless, it left some people feeling they would be reluctant to trust FSFE again. An organization that relies so heavily on the contributions of volunteers shouldn’t even contemplate treating them, or their representatives, with such contempt. The motion should never have been on the agenda in the first place.

FSF backstabbers

Bullet or boomerang?

In May, people thought the representative missed the bullet but it appears to be making another pass.

Some senior members of FSFE e.V. remain frustrated that a representative’s ethical obligations can’t be hacked with policy documents and other juvenile antics. They complain that telling fellows the truth is an act of treason and speaking up for fellows in a discussion is a form of obstruction. Both of these crimes are apparently grounds for reprisals, threats, character assassination and potentially expulsion.

In the most outrageous act of scapegoating, the president has even tried to suggest that the fellowship representative is responsible for the massive exodus from the fellowship examined in a previous blog. The chart clearly shows the exodus coincides with the attempt to force-migrate fellows to the supporter program, long after the date when the representative took office.

Senior members have sent the representative threats, throwing him out of office, most recently the president himself, simply for observing the basic ethical responsibilities of a representative.

Leave your conscience at the door

With the annual general meeting in Berlin only four weeks away, the president is apparently trying to assemble a list of people to throw the last remaining representative out of the association completely. It feels like something out of a gangster movie. After all, altering and suppressing the results of elections and controlling the behavior of the candidates are the modus operandi of dictators and gangsters everywhere.

Will other members of the association exercise their own conscience and respect the commitment of representation that was made to the community? Or will they leave their conscience at the door and be the president’s puppets, voting in block like in many previous general meetings?

The free software ecosystem depends on the goodwill of volunteers and donors, a community that can trust our leaders and each other. If every free software organization behaved like this, free software wouldn’t exist.

A president who conspires to surround himself with people who agree with him, appointing all his staff to be voting members of the FSFE e.V. and expelling people with more diverse views appears unlikely to get far promoting the organization’s mission when he first encounters adults in the real world.

The conflict of interest in this role is not of the representative’s own making, it is inherent in FSFE’s structure. If they do finally kill off the last representative, it will be worn like a badge of honor, for putting the community first. After all, isn’t that a representative’s role?

As the essayist John Gardner wrote

“The citizen can bring our political and governmental institutions back to life, make them responsive and accountable, and keep them honest. No one else can.”

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