April, promoting and protecting Free Software in France

by Thomas Petazzoni, April board member, 2008

Founded in 1996, April is a non-profit organization located in France. It is the main French advocacy association devoted to promoting and protecting Free/Libre Software.

Proud of its 4132 members (3723 individuals, 409 companies, associations and organizations), it aims at making Free Software more accessible for the general public, professionals and institutions, and thus more widespread. It also acts as a watchdog on digital freedoms, warning the public about the dangers of private interests keeping an exclusive stranglehold on information and knowledge.

After a general presentation of the organization, its objectives and activities, this article will focus on two important campaigns of the last two years. Through this article, our goal is to share our experience with readers from other countries, and maybe to encourage the emergence of similar organizations or campaigns in other parts of the world, in order to better promote and protect Free Software.

Presentation

Historically, April was founded in 1996 by a small group of students in computer science when they left the Paris VIII University, with the goal of promoting Free Software in France. The name April stands for Association pour la Promotion et la Recherche en Informatique Libre, which could be translated as Association for the Promotion and Research in Free Computing. Over the 12 years of its existence and activity, April evolved from a small local association to a major national player of the French Free Software landscape.

Its goals are to promote Free Software and open standards towards individuals, institutions and companies in the French-speaking space, to protect the rights of Free Software users and authors, and to encourage knowledge sharing.

Its actions and campaigns can take many shapes:

  • relay information and actions towards written press, radio and television. April is now perceived by journalists as a reference for questions related to Free Software and digital freedoms, and is often asked to give its opinion about new issues, to answer interviews or to write articles;
  • keep a constant vigilance about all decisions, articles concerning Free Software, and react appropriately;
  • inform elected representatives and political parties, promote a progressive legislation concerning information technology, patents and copyright, in order to protect the interests of Free Software authors and users, and to create a legislative environment favourable to Free Software;
  • raise awareness of the public on the dangers of DRM, patents, over-protection of copyright, and more generally on the dangers of an exclusive appropriation of knowledge and of information;
  • give about thirty conferences each year, take part to around twenty events, in several program committees or jurys, and take part in the organization of large events such as the Libre Software Meeting and Paris Capitale du Libre;
  • create partnerships with institutions, non-governmental organizations. For example, April takes part in a new course dedicated to "Free Software Engineering" created in the University of Calais;
  • be present in committees that influence the government decisions (Forum of Internet Rights, Superior Council of Literary and Artistic Property);
  • inform decision-makers and institution about the interests of switching to Free Software, and help them in their move.

Until 2004, the association's activities were completely achieved by volunteer members. But in the face of an increasing number of matters, an increasing complexity and an increasing need for highly-specialised skills, the association decided to develop its human and financial means. In March 2005, the association engaged its first employee, as Executive Director, Frédéric Couchet, one of the founders. Two years later, the association has three full-time employees, an Executive Director, an Executive Assistant, and a Public Affairs Officer. However, even with three full-time employees, the volunteer work is still very important, and represented around 3,500 hours of work.

In 2007, the association launched a membership campaign, with the support of Richard M. Stallman, who said that "April plays in France a fundamental and unique role for the promotion and protection of Free Software and its various actors. The digital freedom is a societal issue and it is essential, today more than before, to support this freedom by joining April. I encourage all citizens who care in digital freedom to become a member of April."

The association now has 4132 members (3723 individuals, 409 companies, associations and organizations). April is proud to count such member companies as Sun Microsystems, RedHat, Steria, Thales, and many other, mostly providing services around Free Software. April's member associations are mostly local Free Software user groups, but also larger organizations such as Wikimedia France or the Ligue de l'Enseignement, a popular education movement which has over 2 million members). Public administrations have also started to join April, with the city of Pierrefitte-sur-Seine being the first member in this category.

EUCD.INFO, fighting against anti-circumvention law

In December 2002, April and the FSF France launched the eucd.info initiative, whose mission was to inform about the social and economic consequences of the European Union Copyright Directive, and its French-counterpart DADVSI (Droits d'Auteur et Droits Voisins dans la Société de l'Information, Author Rights and Related Rights in the Information Society). The EUCD comes from treaties signed at the international level, at the OMPI in 1996, whose goal is to strengthen copyright protection at the digital era. In 1998, these treaties gave birth to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the United States, and to the EUCD in 2001 in Europe.

At the end of 2002, a bill, which aims at translating the EUCD into the French law, leaks from the Superior Council of Literary and Artistic Property. Its reading showed several problems for authors and users of Free Software, but also for the future of copyright at the digital era. The EUCD.info initiative was launched as a reaction to this, in order to give the point of view of technicians on what was proposed.

Like DMCA, this law, later called DADVSI, legalizes DRM, which turns cultural usages and exceptions (such as private copy) into contract rights, that can be arbitrarily limited through technical measures. We are all aware of the various issues caused by DRMs: lack of interoperability, violation of private life, long-term archiving issues, etc. Moreover, the law severely penalizes circumvention of DRM, which as we all know is required to be able to read DRM-encumbered files with our beloved Free Software.

This campaign involved several actions: writing of juridicial briefings, amendments to the law, vulgarization articles, participation to over 60 conferences, meetings with cultural industry actors, many political representatives, journalists, coordination with legal practitioners from other organizations, animation and development of the website, and more generally, trying to raise awareness on the issues.

Moreover, a petition was launched, which was signed by more than 170,000 individuals, and 1,000 organizations (companies and associations). This petition allowed to reach people outside of the Free Software community, such as people concerned about the evolution of copyright at this new digital age. A printed version of this petition with the first 75,000 was brought by Richard Stallman to the French Prime Minister, who refused to receive the delegation.

Without counting the volunteer work, this campaign involved employed persons. Namely, it involved: during the first 6 months phase, a jurist at 2/3-time and a full-time activist; during the second 24 months phase, a 3/4-time activist and punctual interventions of three people; and during the last 6 months phase, three full-time activists and punctual interventions from two other people.

Candidats.fr, raising awareness about free software in political campaigns

In France, 2007 was an important year with regards to political elections, because it included the renewal of the French President and of the political representatives at the French Parliament. Both of these elections are organized through an universal ballot, which means that each citizen is invited to vote, and that the campaign preceding the elections takes a major place in the media.

April wanted to raise the question of Free Software and digital freedom in the political campaign, and launch the candidats.fr initiative to do so (a short presentation in English is available). The initiative was structured in two steps, one for the presidential election, and one for the parliamentary election.

For the president election, April wrote a questionnaire, which was sent to the twelve candidates. The questionnaire featured 33 very precise questions, on various subjects related to digital freedoms : patents, DRM, intellectual property protection at the international level, interoperability, European directives and national laws concerning intellectual property reinforcement, "Trusted Computing", bundled selling of software with computers, electronic administration, neutrality of education with regards to software, and education of computing in schools. For each subject, a document giving some details was provided, so that the candidates could find more information about it, and fully understand the questions.

The goals were to raise awareness about Free Software and related issues towards candidates and their party, to allow the public to be informed of the candidates' positions on these subjects, and to get statements that could later be used during discussions with the new president or his/her representatives.

Eight candidates (out of 12) answered the questionnaire: François Bayrou, Olivier Besancenot, José Bové, Marie-Georges Buffet, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Ségolène Royal, Nicolas Sarkozy, Dominique Voynet. All the candidates from the major parties answered, and the two candidates selected for the second round, Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, were amongst them. The answers are all published on the candidats.fr website.

On May, 6th, after the second round, Nicolas Sarkozy was elected as the President of the French Republic. The initiative later published a detailed analysis of the president's answer, which is certainly the least favourable to Free Software amongst all 8 answers, and harmful to its development and widespread adoption. The president is favourable to patents in all domains, to DRMs, and took no commitments concerning interoperability, the use of open standards and Free Software in the administration, and generally, answered in a very blurry manner to the questionnaire.

After the president election, the candidats.fr initiative launched its campaign for the French members of parliament in a different manner. There are 577 members of parliament in France, and for this election there were 7639 candidates. Instead of asking all candidates to answer the questionnaire, the candidats.fr initiative created a "Free Software Pact". It is a short document through which a candidate recognizes the interest and value of Free Software and commits himself to promote the use of Free Software and open standards in public administrations and to protect Free Software authors and users rights by requesting the modification to the creation of laws threatening these rights and by opposing such laws.

The initiative launched a call for volunteer participation in order to find volunteers that would contact the candidates representative of their area. To coordinate the action of these volunteers, a collaboration platform was set-up, so that volunteers could register as responsible for an area or for a specific candidate, and could report the progression of their initiatives towards the candidates. Of course, a mailing-list was set up in order to share experiences between volunteers.

In the end, 581 volunteers contacted 1176 candidates (out of a total of 7639), and 520 candidates signed the "Free Software Pact". Amongst them, 68 were elected. So, out of 577 representatives, 68 have signed the pact. In these 68 representatives, 57 can be considered to be from left wing political organizations, and 11 from right wing political organizations. Sixty-eight representatives may seem to be small compared to the total number of 577, but it's still a significant group of potential interlocutors, which we hope will help protecting Free Software and promoting its use in public administrations. Since the end of the campaign, April has started to meet each representative who signed the "Free Sofware Pact" in order to discuss the issues to which the representative may be sensitive and which are of importance for Free Software development. Since the elections new members of parliament signed the Free Software Pact. You can see all the signatories on our platform.

In the end, April considers this candidats.fr campaign to be a success, and encourages similar organizations in other countries to set up similar initiatives.

For more information about April and these campaigns, you can also watch the video of the conference Distributed campaigns for promoting and defending freedom in digital societies given by Jeremie Zimmermann, board member of April, during the 24th Chaos Communication Congress.

See also this article "French presidential candidates on Free Software, related issues".