Video and Transcript of Julia Reda’s LibrePlanet Keynote Talk

Posted in Free/Libre Software, FSF at 12:08 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Video download link (original CC BY-SA)

Summary: “A European Open Technology Fund: Building sustainable public funding for free software” — a talk by Julia Reda; transcribed by Techrights associate and ripped by Linux Reviews


Julia Reda: Hi, it’s a great pleasure to be one of the keynote speakers today. My name is Julia Reda and I’m going to talk to you about why I think it’s the government’s responsibility to invest in the maintenance and improvement of Free Software and how we can actually make this happen all over the world. Personally, I’m from Europe. I was a member of the European Parliament for five years, elected for Germany. And nowadays I’m active in the


NGO sector in Germany and among other things I’m a board member at the Open Knowledge Foundation, Germany, which is also active in this field. However today, I’m talking as an individual Free Software activist and advocate and not representing any organization.

So, I would like to start to talk a little bit on the theoretical level about about what the purpose of government is supposed to be in our society.


At a very basic level, the government is all of us together. So the government’s purpose is to represent every single individual in a society and to be accountable to every single individual in a society. So sort of the idea of government of the people, by the people, for the people and one very important function that government fulfills is to look after common


goods, to look after infrastructure. So this can be anything that benefits society as a whole but for which there may not necessarily be a business case, that the free market cannot take care of. Traditionally we have been thinking about public service and infrastructure as things such as building roads, or making sure that there is a fire department, things like that but I think increasingly it’s


important to recognize that our digital infrastructure not just the hardware, telecomms communications networks, but also the software that we are using to interact on a day to day basis is is increasingly becoming this sort of infrastructure.

So what I am advocating for is that every government should have a Free Software philosophy. So it should use Free Software for government services, it should take responsibility for the


Free Software that it uses, so this means for example contributing to Free Software and feeding that into the project that the public sector benefits from.

I think it’s perhaps a sort of a no longer very provocative statement to say that algorithms rule the world. Sometimes when politicians say something like this, they sound a little bit ridiculous and it almost sounds like they are basically


saying that technology and algorithms are somehow magic and something we should be afraid of. That is not what I am trying to say. But rather what I want to say with this is that nowadays computation is no longer limited to a particular part of our daily lives. So ten, twenty years ago maybe people would say something like “the real world” when they were referring to being offline. I think nowadays nobody does this any more because


software is really present on all kinds of devices that we are interacting with on a daily level. For example, cars but also increasingly things like fridges and this doesn’t always lead to particularly, let’s say, useful applications. Sometimes this can be quite dangerous which is why there are parody accounts on Twitter looking at particularly bad Internet


Of Things applications and speculating about things like a fridge Blue Screen of Death ™. But I think on a more serious note we have seen in the global pandemic and particularly during the last twelve months that the use of software and technology really is an integral part of every aspect of our lives, our work life, our health care system, our


educational system, and so on. And when the first lock down happened a year ago. There were a lot of improvised solutions in order to react to a situation where all of a sudden a lot of institutions that were not very well prepared for working in a technologically mediated way had to just come up with some kind of hot fix very quickly. I’m quite concerned that


over the last twelve months proprietary technology has gained a lot of ground, simply because a lot of schools, a lot of companies were overwhelmed with the sudden need to become digitally mediated and they didn’t necessarily have a plan to do so and so were quite vulnerable for all kinds of proprietary offers that were made to them. And so I think now, one year into this quite significant


crisis we should no longer accept the argument well that this is an exceptional situation but we should start once again making demands towards our governments that the digital solutions that they invest in have to be in the long term interests of the public and not just taking whatever proprietary solution that may be working out of the box right now. I think one area where this discussion has been


most prominent as a consequence of COVID-19 has been with video conferencing software and Zoom where we have situations such as with the European Commission which at the beginning of the pandemic was advising its own services against using Zoom because of a lot of security and privacy concerns but at the same time Zoom was being used inside this government institution on a daily basis simply


because there was a lack of awareness and accessibility of Free Software alternatives that the institution knew how to deal with. So quite often we have this conflicting situation where actually Free Software would be in the public interest and would be in the interest of government institutions but that’s not necessarily what we are dealing with because quite often institutions are just stuck with the improvised solutions that perhaps made sense


to them a year ago when we got into this crisis.

So going forward I think now that we’ve established that software controls a lot of our public lives but we don’t necessarily control the software, what are we going to do about it? And I think it’s important that if we want to move forward out of this situation we have to ask our government to take responsibility and they might not do this on the basis of


the philosophical argument at the start of this talk where I was saying that it’s government’s job to provide public infrastructure but we have to find different ways of bringing this message to governments who may be stuck in their own narratives and maybe listening to different arguments. So in some cases depending on what country you’re from, since this is a global


event, it could be that a pragmatic argument works best where you can say, well, actually you as a government your public institutions are already relying on a lot of Free Software. Perhaps they don’t actually know that, the may not know the server infrastructure the ministry is running its services on, they may not be aware of all the Free Software libraries they’re building on so raising awareness on that and if you’re using all this Free Software don’t


you want to contribute to its security and take responsibility to make sure that it’s going to continue in the future? This strategy very much depends the national context, so I can speak especially about my home country of Germany.

So in Germany at the moment we have quite a strange discussion happening about digitization where you can really feel that a lot of German politicians feel quite uneasy


about the development of digital technology because they feel somewhat left behind. There is a lot of hand-wringing about the power of big American tech companies and increasingly also Chinese tech companies somehow becomming more powerful that Germany. The popular response from German politicians to this feeling of loss of control is to ask for something they call Digital Sovereignty, and to many people this


means something like well we wouldn’t have a problem with Microsoft or Amazon or Google if only they were German companies. And I don’t think that’s a particularly productive way of approaching the problem with the centralization of power with some of these tech companies. I think there is also a problem with this concept of Digital Sovereignty that it’s basically promoting a sort of ideology of us versus them that


if only we can make sure that our proprietary tech companies from our country are the ones that win in the market place then there wouldn’t be a problem. And I think however that we can use this framework of digital sovereignty to do a sort of agenda hijacking where we take this idea and run with it and turn it into something more productive. So I’ve started to talk about Digital Sovereignty


as an argument why European governments and the German government in particular should invest into Free and Open Source Software.

Now why is this? First of all if software is developed and released as Free Software, it doesn’t really matter whether it was developed in Germany or developed somewhere else because everybody can benefit from it and can build upon it. So we can actually


stop looking at geopolitical relations as a zero-sum game where basically I can only win something if another country loses out but instead we can recognize that Free Software inoculates us against becoming too dependent on any one individual country or company by ensuring that Free alternatives to them are available.

So what does this mean, this concept of Digital


Sovereignty for public policy? It means for example that a government should make Free Software a requirement for its public procurement procedures. So if the public is spending money and commissioning for example a new IT system for some government task, it should be a requirement that the company that ends up building the system has to release the result as Free Software because only in this way can we prevent our government from becoming


dependent on future contract with this one particular company. So this actually does make that government more sovereign in the best sense of the word because it makes it less dependent on a particular vendor. And it also means I think that government should not just tolerate Free and Open Source Software but actually to promote and to fund it. So it means actually actively contributing to Free and Open Source Software projects


and also investing in their improvement. So this concept of Digital Sovereignty that I’ve been pushing with German politics is to say we are going to be sovereign if we invest in decentralization and connectedness and permissionless innovation so quite a lot of the values that also underly Free Software Communities.

What it does not mean, and I think this is important, that somehow Free Software should


become organized by the government. I think the permissionless part is very, very important that we have to recognize that Free Software is build by communities and those communities should be able to set their own priorities and to come up with new things that a government might never have though of.

So what can this look like in practice? I think in the US you already have quite a positive example of how the government can


support Free and Open Source Software without actually steering it too much and this is the Open Technology Fund. The Open Technology Fund in the US is a private, non-governmental organization that is receiving public funding from Congress in order to fund Open Source Software projects primarily in the field of anti-censorship and privacy but the government does not


decide who receives the money and I think this is very important in order for such a funding infrastructure for Free Software to function. So basically this way you have the possiblity that an organization that is close to the Free Software community and that enjoys the community’s trust can actually run the funding programme without government interference. So this is the theory.



last year we also saw some of the limitations of having just one such programme. Because we saw the Open Technology Fund being attacked by the Trump administration who appointed a new chair of the government agency in charge of overseeing the Open Technology Fund and then try to defund the Open Technology Fund and actually ban it from receiving government funding in the future.


Lackedly this attack by the US government on the Open Technology Fund failed because the Open Technology Fund had a lot of support from both political parties in Congress and so Congress actually managed to use emergency COVID legislation to ensure that the Open Technology Fund could not be barred from receiving funding in the future. So now after the election with


the Biden administration the Open Technology Fund is more or less back to normal and funding Free Software projects again. So you could say well okay everything fine then and we don’t need to worry about this any more but I think what this has shown is that from an EU perspective we are really far from Digital Sovereignty because we have been benefiting from the Open Technology Fund all along. I mean this fund has been


supporting a lot of very important Free Software projects such as Signal which is by the way a lot of European public administrations also use a lot of ministries, a lot of parliaments actually use Signal to communicate with each other. It has funded Tor, it has funded WireGuard, so lots and lots of different projects that contribute to secure communication which now during COVID is really


more important than ever for governments.

So like I said earlier the European Commission which governs the European Union in a way has had this sort of contradictory policy when it comes to these issues. Where on the one hand it’s been trying to promote Free Software, it’s been trying to promote IT security, but


yeah in this situation where everything had to suddenly go online it didn’t still have to rely on solutions such as Zoom because it didn’t have anything else available and I think this is also somewhat showing the failure of European governments to really invest in Free and Open Source Software in the past. Because if you look at how much money the Open Technology Fund actually receives, it’s somewhere between 15 and 20 million dollars, I think,


which is not very much for the budget of an average European country. So there’s actually no excuse for why the EU doesn’t have an Open Technology Fund or in fact five Open Technology Funds so this is something that I would like to change. I started working on this issue back in 2014 when I was elected to the European Parliament. Back then we just had the Heartbleed and Shellshock


vulnerabilities discovered and this was quite a watershed moment where a lot of politicians for the first time were realizing how central Free Software components are to all kinds of different parts of our digital environment and Heartbleed also showed that it’s not enough for something to be Free Software in order to ensure that it’s actually secure. I think laying open


the source code is a very, very important component to building secure IT systems but even when something is open source you still have to make that there is enough funding, enough resources available that this code can actually be maintained and improved over time. So this was the starting point of a project that I founded when I was in the European Parliament called EU-FOSSA. The Free and


Open Source Software auditing pilot project. So with the support of the European Commission we started this pilot project with a relatively small budget around a million euros a year to basically pay for audits of Free and Open Source Software. So basically we were arguing to the European Commission, look, you are using all kinds of Free Software in your own institutions, why don’t you


do the security audits that you should be doing on the software you are using anyway but then actually release the results of those audits back into those Free Software projects so they can benefit from that as well. And in the process of running this pilot project we actually learned a lot through an iterative process because we found it was actually quite difficult to spend this public funding


in a way that really gets to the developers that should be receiving it that then can benefit the most from this funding. So we found, for example, at the beginning that we were basically putting the money in a public tender where companies could apply to run those security audits that this was perhaps not the most efficient way to distribute the money because the individual developers or often quite


small companies that are actually best at finding and fixing bugs in Free Software are not necessarily the companies that are best placed to apply to European Commission calls for public tender because those public tender procedures are quite complicated and there are consultancies that are very much specialized in applying to these tenders but may not be specialized in Free Software. So


on the basis of that experience we actually modified EU-FOSSA and in its second integration we did the bug bounty approach instead where we could basically run a call for tender for a bug bounty platform instead but then once we had found the platform to run the bug bounties with the actual prize money that was coming from this public funding could go directly to individual develoers who were finding bugs in popular


Free Software. So in this way we found, for example, quite critical bugs in PuTTY, for example. But there was also some criticism of this bug bounty approach because of course finding bugs in Free Software and creating incentives for that does not automatically mean that those bugs will be fixed. So there still will be quite a lot of thankless work happening from the community that may not be remunerated.


So, I’m actually quite happy that after I left the European Parliament, the European Commission kept thinking about this idea and has now partnered up with Intigriti to actually pay a bonus for certain bug bounties if the person who submits the bug bounty also provides a fix for it. So I think this is quite a good incentive and I think it’s good that the European Commission is offering this money particularly in the context of bug bounties


for matrix.org but now here you also have a European public sector investing in security technology and encryption technology which I think is something that governments all over the place should really be supporting.

I also want to look at Germany as an example. I think there are other public funding programmes for Free Software in other countries around the world and I would


be very happy to hear about them from you but the German context is, of course, what I know best and since I’m board member at the Open Knowledge Foundation, Germany, I’m most familiar with the prototype fund which is a programme which we run at Open Knowledge Foundation which is where we receive money from the German ministry of education and research and invest in prototypes


so this is one sort of very low level very easy to apply to to receive funding to new innovative Free Software ideas and the prototype fund basically receives this money from the government and gives relatively small grants to new projects without a lot of bureaucratic overhead. And I think this is a really good start but the problem is that it has this focus


on new projects. So we are only allowed to fund something that is innovative, that is a prototype but I think there is a missing link there something that Germany, the EU, and governments all over the world should also be supporting more and that is the maintenance of infrastructure. The best way, or the best illustration of this problem that I have ever seen is from this


XKCD comic, where you have this stack of building bricks and at the top it says this is all modern digital infrastructure and at the very bottom you have this one tiny brick that everything balances on which is a project some random person in Nebraska has been thanklessly maintaining since 2003. And I think this comic is not much of an exaggeration. So I think the difficult problem that governments that want to support Free Software infrastructure need


to figure out is how to actually get money to that person in Nebraska to make sure the maintenance can continue and that they have the support that they need.

So for this purpose I’ve gotten together with a few activist friends from other organizations, including somebody working at the Open Technology Fund, somebody working at the Prototype Fund, and we’ve started basically creating a concept for what a digital


infrastructure fund could look like that could be run by the German Government but also by different governments around the world. And so we have learned different lessons from the FOSSA project that I ran at the European level, from the Prototype Fund, and also from the OTF, to come up with a number of principals that we think need to be fulfilled for such a funding program to really have a positive impact. So first of all we think it must be really


easy to apply for funding because quite often in the Free Software community you can have individual developers, maybe the project that they are working on, it’s just their hobby, sometimes they have a day job inside of a software company that allows them to spend some time on this but sometimes they don’t actually have stable funding and so it should be possible for an individual to just apply for this funding without having a company to run the money through,


for example. Secondly, we think there should be very low overheads. So you should not have involve consultancies that will end up spending a lot of the funding on writing reports but not actually spending a lot of the funding on actually writing code. We think it’s also important that the funding should not be limited to innovative projects. This is quite often the case with government funding.


Sometimes you have research departments of governments that provide funding opportunities for innovation for new research which is all great and important but the problem is that this way you never have enough funding for infrastructure that just needs to be maintained and improved and so I’m actually convinced a lot of innovation will come out of having a stable and secure infrastructure and this is


just a little bit of a blind spot of a lot of programmes that exist. So upkeep and usability improvements of Free Software projects should be eligible for funding. Finally, we think such a funding programme should be part of a broader Free and Open Source Software strategy of a government. This includes, for example, making Free Software a requirement for public tender or also having rules that if


software is built in-house for example inside the government that the results of that software are also resubmitted to the projects under Free Software licenses. Learning from the OTF, we also very much benefit from the fact that the OTF actually wants to be copied, they were quite open to talking to us about our ideas and we found that pretty much all the elements of the


Open Technology Fund are Open Source themselves, including their methodology, the software that they themselves use for the implementation of their funding programme and so on. So from the Open Technology Fund we’ve learned that it’s very important that such a funding programme must not be run by the government directly. There are quite a lot of reasons for that. I think that one reason is trust. I think it’s important to recognize that the Free


Software community is you know also a community of culture that runs on people knowing each other, people creating exciting projects with each other, and those projects may also be in conflict with the government policies of the day. For example, the surveillance policies of the US government are certainly not supported by lot of the recipients of OTF funding, for example. So it must also be very clear that this is not a publicity


opportunity for a government that basically they cannot expect the Free Software projects that receive public funding to be nice to the government or anything like that.

So another very important aspect that we found as a basic principle is that the nationality or the tax residence of the individual developer should not matter and this is actually surprisingly difficult


to convince governments of, that it’s actually beneficial to, let’s say the German economy, to give money to a Free Software developer in Brazil because she is going to improve Free Software infrastructure that German companies can then actually build on. To me this sounds totally sensible and logical but quite often the expectation from government funders is that whoever they fund needs to be a national of their country


or at least have a tax residence there and this is limiting really the possibility to direct Free Software funding to those developers and communities that are most relevant for the public interest.

I think it’s also very important to recognize that whatever new funding infrastructure we want to build in Europe should not be in any way in competition to the Open Technology Fund. But rather we actually need a lot


of redundancy. Like I mentioned earlier the Open Technology Fund has a focus on anti-censorship and privacy technologies and this is certainly also because the US government has a foreign policy interest in this area. But this doesn’t mean that only let’s say democracy activists in Hong Kong or in Iran or Belarus can benefit from this technology but actually you


know investigative journalists inside the US or within Europe or even government activists will be just as much benefiting from the development and improvement of the privacy and anti-censorship technologies that are funded through the OTF. So redundancy is actually a good thing and diversification is also a good thing. So with the Open Technology Fund having this


focus in the area of anti-censorship and privacy there is a lot of room for additional funds that perhaps have a slightly different focus and that could be focused, for example, on government technology or on core infrastructure which is what we are especially interested in or in open hardware even.

So what comes next from here? I think first of all, it’s


important that within the Free Software community there is a lot of room for different people with different strengths to work on different elements of the vision that we have for a world that relies less on prorpietary technology. So, for example, obviously all the Free Software devlopers who are building Free Software are contributing greatly to this vision. Personally I’m not a Free Software developer.


I’m a public policy person and I see my contribution to the community not in building software but in trying to build a bridge between the community and policy makers who quite often are not particularly knowledgeable about technology but who can be convinced of investing in Free Software as well and who sometimes have a sort of a gut instinct that they don’t particularly like the walled gardens that are being


built by some of the proprietary technology companies but may need a little bit of help in seeing what sorts of policies might actually counteract this trend. So it’s totally fine if you focus on the coding and others, like myself, focus on telling the story behind why Free Software is important.

So like I said, together with like-minded activists in Germany we are working on


this idea of a digital infrastructure fund that is broadly modeled on the Open Technology Fund and we started talking to different people in the European Commission, in the German government, and we will try to make this idea a reality to have more different Free Software funding infrastructures in different countries in place. But what is going to be most important to us in this process is to really insist on the design principles that I’ve mentioned like


making sure that individual developers can be funded, making sure that nationality doesn’t matter, and so on. We are recognizing that it’s quite important to eventually have European or even global funding infrastructures in place but we also don’t want to wait for let’s say the twenty seven member states of the European Union to all get together and agree on a common


funding programme. So instead we decided we will start tackling this project in Germany, try to convince political parties and governments here that this is a good idea to build something like that but we are very much hoping that initiatives in other countries go in a similar direction and I’m aware that some countries already have something like this. I think in The Netherlands there is some public funding for Free Software but I would be very interested


and hopeful that perhaps groups in other countries pick up this idea and push for similar initiatives in your countries. And if you are doing something like this please also don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.

So what can you do to help at this point? First of all, this fund does not exist yet. There are of course the Open Technology Fund in the US, there is the Prototype Fund in Germany, so if you are working on something


that fits those descriptions, so for example for the Prototype Fund if you’re just starting out with a new project, if you’re based in Germany, absolutely check out those programmes, but at this point we don’t have this digital infrastructure fund yet so now is not the time to pitch us your software or things like that but rather to promote this idea. Talk about it, write op-eds in newspapers, try to contact your national


politicians about whether such funding infrastructures exist in your country and try to start similar initiatives all over the place. And hopefully a year from now or so we’ll be able to give you some good news about the progress of this project in Germany.

So that’s it from me. I hope that this idea and that this plan that we’re working on will serve as some inspiration. If you’re working on something similar


or have ideas about how to convince governments to pick up this important mission, this is how you can contact me. This is it. So thanks a lot for your attention and I look forward to the discussion.

[Q&A omitted]

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