Fellowship interview with Georg Greve

The smallest unit of freedom: a Fellow

Georg Greve is the founder of the Free Software Foundation Europe and has served as its president since the beginning in 2001. Marking the eight birthday of the FSFE I asked him some questions on his own background and the history of the FSFE for a special birthday edition of the Fellowship interview series.

Georg Greve

Stian Rødven Eide:While the story of how Richard Stallman came to found the GNU project and the FSF is well known to most Free Software advocates, the details of your own background are more shrouded. Could you tell us a bit about how you were first introduced to Free Software and what made you convinced of its importance?

Georg Greve: The first time I came in contact with Free Software was around 1993, when my old and heavily modified Atari 1040 STFM died and I decided that the modular PC architecture was probably the coming technology.

After a few frustrating weeks of trying to use Windows, a friend dropped a bunch of GNU/Linux disks on me before going on vacation. Unfortunately that particular distribution was broken, so I spent two weeks with little sleep and much swearing. But I also learned a lot about GNU/Linux and after getting my hands on a working distribution it installed like charm and it has been my system ever since.

Even though I joined the GNU Project sometime in the mid 90s when Richard discovered my Xlogmaster program, a small hack that allowed to display and monitor multiple log files on a single machine without the use of dozens of console windows running “tail“, I did not become aware of the philosophical, economic and political relevance of Free Software until 1998.

The organisers of the “Cluster of Working Nodes” (CLOWN) project got in touch with me to give a presentation about the GNU Project. This was my first presentation on Free Software, and for its preparation I read through the entire philosophy section of the GNU web pages.

The culture of use of my first machine, an Amstrad CPC464, and even more so the culture of the Atari machines, was a lot like the Free Software culture. We shared code, developed together, took software apart to learn how it worked. But all of this use was unreflected.

Through the GNU Project and in particular the writings of Richard, I became aware of the larger picture. That is probably also the reason why I believe that his greatest achievement in life was to give this culture of software self-awareness.

This self-awareness, including the Free Software Definition and the principle of Copyleft, was fundamental for everything that came afterwards, which provides the most important reason for myself to speak of “GNU/Linux.”

SRE: In 1992 you became a member of Hanse, a German organisation dedicated to advancing computer literacy. Was Free Software already a part of the agenda at that time?

Georg Greve: Culturally yes, but unreflected, as you can see from the above.

Through the Hanse I made some very good friends, including the one who provided me with my first copy of GNU/Linux. The practical function of the Hanse was to connect us in an affordable and self-determined way to the early stages of the emerging Internet.

It might be funny to hear that this was when I started to use “Unix To Unix Copy” (UUCP) as protocol for news and email, because the protocol works very well in environments with expensive and fragile network connections. This is what I still use (although tunnelled through SSH over the internet) to transfer email from and to my laptop today, including this interview.

SRE: You became a GNU user in 1993, a time when the Linux kernel had been Free Software for about a year and the first GNU/Linux distributions were starting to show up. Can you give us an account of the usage and awareness of Free Software at that time?

Georg Greve: From my recollection, GNU/Linux and the BSDs were the operating system of choice in particular for the “early internet crowd” in Germany.

Free Software lived primarily in datacentres, among the network professionals in large corporations, in universities, and in a few companies that had ties to these groups.

“The proverbial ‘normal person on the street’ had probably never heard of Free Software, meaning that mentioning it would be rewarded by a blank stare.

A little bit later Free Software was perceived as a threat by some large vendors of proprietary software, which led to the campaigns that tried to push it into the “hobbyist” or even “communist” corner in order to discredit it.

Fortunately those days are long gone.

SRE: You have a Masters degree in Biophysics from the University of Hamburg, and financed parts of your studies by working as a programmer at the University Hospital. Is this a field where the use and development of Free Software was particularly obvious, or was it your early experience with programming that led you to combine the two interests?

Georg Greve: The particular department where I was working had a SQUID Magnetometer made by Philips with an array of 32 sensors, cooled by liquid helium. All the computers in the lab were Sun Solaris workstations.

Installing all the GNU components on the workstations was naturally among the first steps, and at home I developed on my GNU/Linux system, but the software itself was a highly specialised signal filtering, display and pattern searching research software. Its purpose was to see whether it might be possible to detect heart defects in unborn babies in a way that would not induce stress in the foetus.

Although I was trying to convince the lab to publish the software under GNU GPL, they licensed, but never published it, as far as I remember. Considering the quality of my programming in those days and the lack of readily available multi-million EUR arrays with constant sources of liquid hydrogen, the Free Software community could probably survive the loss easily.

SRE: In 1999, you started Brave GNU World, a news column presenting GNU projects and analysing the implications of Free Software. Was this a particularly important step towards the founding of FSFE?

Georg Greve: Yes. After my aforementioned speech at the CLOWN, the editor in chief of the German Linux-Magazin, Tom Schwaller, approached me with the idea to write about current events and trends, as well as new software, from the philosophical perspective of the GNU project.

This quickly evolved into the Brave GNU World, which at its peak was published in six printed magazines around the world, and translated into thirteen languages in parallel. Writing the Brave GNU World gave me additional perspective, and also allowed me to get in touch with many people who I didn’t know before.

Sometimes in late ’99 or early 2000 I realised that the idea of the FSF is too important to ever be based only in any one culture or organisation, and that a Free Software Foundation Europe was needed.

When I eventually told Richard about my thoughts, he asked me whether I was willing to do this, and so FSFE began.

SRE: Beside the more obvious advantages of having a dedicated European organisation, the cultural differences between Europe and the US has been mentioned as an argument for its necessity. What are the main differences in this regard and how has that influenced the structure and communication methods of the FSFE?

Georg Greve: Besides issues such as time zones and languages, cultural differences can be as large as differences in language. As there is no global “lingua franca”, there is also no “cultura franca” that would work everywhere in the world.

The cultural and communicative approach that is necessary to achieve change in one part of the world, e.g. the United States, would have the opposite results with many policy makers in other areas, e.g. Europe. And although we have a European culture of sorts, this same issue of cultural difference exists also between different European countries, which makes for a very complex environment.

Organisations that seek to foster sustainable change need to have a consistent message and need to build up confidence and trust over a significant period of time. At the same time, replacing plurality by central command would lead to an organisation that would cater well to one particular target group, but find its message largely ignored by all others.

The design of FSFE addresses this through a structure that is oriented loosely along the idea of a federal model based on subsidiarity.

This means that the regional teams, typically covering a single country, are largely autonomous in their approach to known issues and questions, which probably account for 95%. These teams share and collaborate on a European level, which is where new positions are formed for new issues, which make up the remaining 5%. This way, positions are formed taking into account cultural differences, and can then be implemented locally by the various teams in the most effective way for their country.

The European level is also where European and global work and cooperation takes place. It is at this level that working groups on specific issues are held, for example Open Standards, United Nations or European Union policies. These groups report back directly to FSFE’s European team in the same way as the general activities of FSFE, such as the Freedom Task Force (FTF).

This structure allows FSFE to achieve high consistency despite cultural plurality while keeping the necessary flexibility to allow for cultural diversity of the various countries.

It has allowed FSFE to grow into the most culturally diverse organisation of its kind, and although cultural differences and difference of opinion can lead to controversy, we have managed to establish an internal culture where that controversy can be used constructively to improve the organisation.

SRE: You have been writing about software patents in Europe since 1999. While the issue seems far from resolved, quite a lot has happened during the last four years, with the FSFE and its associate organisation FFII successfully preventing such patents from becoming validated in 2005. Are you more concerned about software patents today or do you feel that it’s going in the right direction?

Georg Greve: Software patents have indeed kept me busy since 1999, when I started to write and speak about them. Within the past ten years, the factual situation has improved in some ways, and worsened in others. While we now have expensive patent shields to protect Free Software from the worst attacks, the patent strategies on the other side have become increasingly vicious, as the TomTom case aptly demonstrates.

On the upside, there is now an intense debate about the use of patents in software that has even reached the European Union and the UN World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) which will discuss the connection of patenting and standards later this month. There are increasingly loud calls to reform the system even in the United States, which is a good sign.

But despite our work of the past ten years, it is hard to feel elated about all these resources spent on software patents and the discussion around them which could have gone to innovation and better software.

Spending these resources is inevitable, though, as the consequence would be worse. But instead of continually working on our defensive actions, we need to find ways to make it unnecessary. For that, we need to engage in the places where these decisions are made, most importantly WIPO, the European Union, and the U.S. government.

These are the places where we need more focussed, professional and long-term oriented policy work if we ever want to break the vicious and expensive cycle of agitation, attack, and defence.

SRE: In 2005 the FSFE initiated its Fellowship community programme. What motivated the decision to establish the Fellowship? Has the relationship between the Fellowship and the rest of FSFE changed since its creation?

Georg Greve: The Fellowship is an activity of FSFE, and indeed one of the primary ways to get involved in the organisation. It is a place for community action, collaboration, communication, fun, and recruitment that also helps fund the other activities of FSFE, for example, the political work.

We had been discussing starting this kind of activity since 2002/2003, but it took us a while to solve the issues that come with it. The balance we sought to find was one where membership was not related to payment, and influence was not for sale.

We wanted to protect the organisational integrity of the association, also because we foresaw the need to maintain high legal stability as a fiduciary for Free Software projects, and to protect its political work.

Until today it is possible to become part of FSFE and join the General Assembly exclusively on the grounds of good work and without a single payment to the association. Such a path typically starts from some form of voluntary engagement in one of the teams, often goes through the European team, and then ends up in the General Assembly, the highest strategic decision making body of the organisation.

Such collaboration, and the trust that builds through good work, makes sure that people enter the General Assembly for the love of Free Software, and because they share the political goals of the association, rather than for different, personal motives.

But we also felt that it would be good to offer a second path that reflects the central role of the Fellowship in the organisation.

This path starts by becoming a Fellow, and then convincing other Fellows that you have good ideas and strategic competency that should be added to the general assembly to determine the strategy of the organisation for the next years.

We added these Fellowship seats to the general assembly during the past year, and the first elections are being held this year. In fact, the call for candidates is out right now and I hope many people will consider running.

Once elected, the Fellowship representatives are full members of the General Assembly, with all associated rights and obligations, can hold an office in the organisation, and make sure that the organisation stays on course.

SRE: With more than 800 Fellows and counting, the FSFE has grown substantially over the years. Do you find that the organisation has scaled well? How does the FSFE primarily attract new members?

Georg Greve: Considering that we started only eight years ago when the IT economy had just collapsed, with lots of enthusiasm, but not quite as much wisdom and experience on some issues, I am quite happy to see that FSFE has meanwhile gone through birth, infancy and adolescence.

Far more than a thousand people have been part of FSFE over the past two years, be it through voluntary work, support or the Fellowship. Considering FSFE’s preference of fostering sustainable long-term change over one-off actions, this is a great success. Just the publicly visible results of FSFE’s work also speak a clear language.

But there is so much more that needs to be done, so of course we would like to encourage more people to join FSFE and support the organisation in whatever way they are able to.

New members tend to come to us for various reasons. Because they like the community they encountered during events or Fellowship meetings, because they have been using Free Software and would like to make sure that the ecosystem will be protected and grown, because they are upset about an issue like software patents, or because they find the work in international organisations fascinating, and want to become part of a worthy cause.

In the end we found that growing numbers are primarily related to visibility, which provides us with a balancing act between the hard and necessary work which often remains invisible and the good things that bring visibility, which many people call for.

SRE: While most of the work is done by volunteers, the FSFE has quite a lot of projects that require some level of funding. Do you find that companies are getting more inclined to support the Foundation financially these days or are most of the donations still coming from its Fellows?

Georg Greve: A significant part of FSFE’s budget is from the Fellows and private donors, although of course some companies have also supported our work over the years. If you check the list, you will find that quite some of the “usual suspects” are missing, though, which is often due to an inherently U.S. centric structure of some companies. Instead, FSFE is being supported by European SMEs, which usually sustain this support for several years.

Tertiary sources of funding are EU projects, and specific project support, such as the buildup of the Freedom Task Force (FTF) through Stichting NLnet.

SRE: As president of the FSFE you have been advising several major entities, like the European Union and the United Nations, in matters surrounding Free Software and Open Standards. How well are such matters understood by these organisations?

Georg Greve: Understanding for Free Software and Open Standards is fluctuating a lot even within the various organisations, and often depending on particular individuals. There is an additional complexity created by rivalry between departments or organisations, like the different units of a government or inter-governmental body.

That is one of the reasons why this kind of work requires a lot of knowledge about organisational structures, people, their personal goals, and how political processes work.

If you talk to the wrong person, it can not only be useless, but also undermine your work by giving that person information they’ll promise to use for promotion of Free Software, but will actually try use to take down their colleague who has been promoting Free Software.

Calling this kind of work complex would be an understatement.

But despite these inherent pitfalls of the political system, there is a clear growing of support and understanding for Free Software and Open Standards. A groundswell that erupts in various places, and in which one organisation will occasionally leapfrog another.

Examples for this are the amazing developments in Spain, the work of the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the Free Software base courses for World Bank project managers, the upcoming discussions at WIPO, or the successful work of the German Agency for IT security.

In conclusions: Understanding and support are growing, but largely dependent upon the people within the organisation and their power to translate understanding into action.

SRE: With more and more governments adopting policies to use Free Software, do you feel that a critical momentum has been reached? What do you regard as the most challenging tasks ahead?

Georg Greve: Gartners prediction of 100% adoption rate within this year and the recent Government Action Plan of the UK government are clear indicators that the critical momentum has been reached. There is no doubt that Free Software has become pervasive, and the IT industry is undergoing massive transformation. Eventually, the entire stack will be free.

The Free Software community will need to accompany and facilitate this transformative process, which is made more difficult by some rather large companies not yet having accepted the inevitability of this transformation and seeking to channel the benefits of Free Software into their own agendas.

We need to understand those mechanics and use them to the advantage of Free Software where possible. But there are also things that the Free Software community needs to do, like an increased professionalisation of projects once they reach a certain threshold. Projects like KDE demonstrate this rather well. Encouraging an ecosystem of companies around these projects that build their business model on Free Software is another key activity.

FSFE has reached adulthood within the past eight years, in time to see Free Software become a young adult, which brings its own challenges and requires a higher professionalisation in some aspects.

SRE: Your presidential tasks ranges from promotional work and approving new members to meeting with ministers and educating international organisations. Are there any particular tasks that you find especially enjoyable?

Georg Greve: Indeed. When you start an organisation like FSFE, you are the handyman for pretty much everything, including the web site, t-shirt printing, booth organisation, contact to sponsors, speeches, articles, conferences, writing distribution material, and so on and so forth.

With a growing organisation I needed to be less involved in some of these areas so I could focus on the most important job on my list, such as strategic analysis, political work, agenda setting, and international relations. These are the things I truly enjoy.

The administrative details, coordinating day-to-day activities, and dealing with budgeting issues are not quite as high on my list. Since the volume of these activities is growing, we’ll need an Executive Director to take care of them. Finding one is indeed on my list of items to do besides everything else.

But the satisfaction of writing a good article on a particular issue, the thrill of policy debates in which you need to manage a complex system of friends and foes in a way to achieve the best possible outcome for Free Software, and the chance to meet so many extraordinary individuals are highlights of my job that make up for many of the more tiring aspects.

So my overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude that I could work with so many exceptional people, learn so many things, grow with challenges, and to see how I no longer know everyone personally who
made FSFE their own in a way that the “bus scenario” no longer holds any terror for FSFE.

Thank you, all!


And many thanks to Georg for taking the time to do this interview with us. His blog “freedom bits” can be found on the new Fellowship Blog site.