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FSF Europe: Free Software Experts

Aug 27, 2001, 15:56 (2 Talkback[s])

Have you ever been depressed, possibly more than once, to discover that a so called Free Software project was financed despite the fact that it had nothing to do with Free Software? Europe will soon be financing new projects and you could help prevent similar travesties by becoming External Experts. It will then be more difficult to claim that nothing could be done: your skills are required to validate the candidate projects.

The Fifth Framework Programme (FP5) of the European Commission needs experts. Of the candidates who proposed themselves thru the online application form, only a few have any real understanding of what Free Software is and how it works. While all experts will be eligible, only a few will be solicited for any particular evaluation. In each case the experts will speak only for themselves, not for their employer nor for organizations they belong to. Early in October 2001 a number of projects will be sent for evaluation in the Creating a user-friendly information society framework.

Who will then be able, technical concerns aside, to judge that a so called Free Software project is not in fact simply a marketing attempt, using the latest buzzword? The candidates for funding know that the European Commission wishes to encourage Free Software projects because of their intrinsic qualities of freedom, independence and sharing. The temptation will be great for them to say they have the technical and human resources necessary to create and maintain a Free Software project even if they don't have the slightest idea of what it really means. If no expert has a real knowledge of Free Software project development, how will the European Commission be able to sort that out?

An example demonstrates this situation. Let's pretend that the GnuPKI project and the campware project submit proposals that are equally good technically speaking (regardless of the fact that they deal with different subjects). Let's further pretend that the commission has to choose between these two, without the benefit of advice from any Free Software experts. They will probably favor GnuPKI since they do a better job of marketing themselves.

It turns out that people familiar with Free Software would notice some anomalies about GnuPKI. First of all it is not a package of the GNU project, despite their name. Given that the GNU project provides core components to the most widely used Free Software operating systems (Debian, RedHat, Mandrake etc.), this mistake demonstrates a disturbing ignorance. Free Software is a matter of communicating with heterogeneous development groups, this is therefore a point that plays against GnuPKI. In addition, the GnuPKI security expert, Mr Eduard Tric, has never participated in Free Software development and no package of the developed software is available as yet. This shows a lack of understanding for the development model. Taking these facts into account, we would now expect GnuPKI's chances of being successful to be much lower than those of campware.

One cannot expect all cases to be as clear cut as this example. Evaluating a project, for the European Commission or for your own company, often requires a more subtle study. When dealing with Free Software it is essential to carefully evaluate the legal status of a project with particular regard to copyright, because various licenses are used and many companies are involved. The ability of the candidates to cooperate with development teams on the network, their ability to establish a dialog and their current involvement in the Free Software community is also of great importance. These points are not technical, they don't have an equivalent in non-free software projects and can only be evaluated by people actively involved in Free Software.

Loïc Dachary member of the GNU project Thanks to Phil Hands, Bernhard Reiter, MJ Ray.
Copyright (C) 2001 FSF Europe
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