Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The FFII: a decayed pressure group promoting "open standards" for pay -- "staged drama" included

The FFII, a European pressure group originally known for its anti-patent work, has been a vocal participant in the European "open standards" debate for several years. In that context, it collaborates with the OpenForum Europe lobby group (which also has an FFII logo on its website and edited its own Wikipedia entry to mention, among other things, that partnership) and the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE).

This blog posting explains why policy-makers, company officials, journalists and honest activists should be extremely skeptical of the FFII's integrity, transparency, competence, and backing.

Especially in connection with "open standards", it turns out that the FFII's General Secretary and possibly also other FFII representatives are simply guns-for-hire willing to advocate positions they don't truly believe in -- provided someone like IBM pays them for it. If they can make money, even "staged drama" is something those people will consider. I have conclusive evidence for that attitude and will publish it further below.

The major issue is that the FFII and its representatives operate under the guise of a purely idealistic non-governmental organization.

The FFII used to be a central hub for the grassroots movement opposing the proposed EU directive on "computer-implemented inventions", which was rejected by the European Parliament in July 2005. At that time, the FFII had a pan-European volunteer network behind it (almost entirely recruited from the open source community) and received donations from many small businesses and individuals.

By now, the organization is in ruins. All that's left is a very small group of people that resulted from an adverse selection. But especially in the "open standards" context, they grossly mislead decision-makers and the media concerning their intentions and the organization's significance.

Defense against unbearable slur

For about six months, and especially over the last few weeks, I have been smeared baselessly and shamelessly by the FFII on Twitter and in discussion forums. Because of the past -- there was a time when the FFII and I had a common political goal -- I tried to avoid escalation. Even though today's FFII is less than a shadow of the FFII of 2004 or 2005, I was hesitant to publish the facts.

In light of what happened yesterday, I determined that I had no other choice but to make it clear just how untrustworthy today's FFII is.

Noted open source journalist Glyn Moody published an article on "Double standards on open standards", and the second paragraph mentions Karsten Gerloff of the FSF Europe. Below the article, I posted comments. I drew attention to the fact that the FSFE doesn't appear to advocate open standards and interoperability in some very important contexts, and it's conspicuous that the FSFE lobbies hand in hand for "open standards" with companies pursuing proprietary lock-in in their core businesses.

Karsten as well as the FSFE's counsel Carlo Piana didn't want to address the actual issue. I asked, repeatedly, two very clear and polite questions. I didn't get any answer, just diversion. So my concerns about the FSFE's position are well-founded. Other people saw this and supported my questions on that page as well as on Twitter.

The FFII's General Secretary then chimed in with baseless slur that's beneath contempt. The FFII's official Twitter account also kept smearing and "trolling" me all day. I decided that enough is enough, especially since I had given the FFII's board every opportunity to get the situation under control but they decided to support their General Secretary.

The FFII's General Secretary openly admitted that he can be -- and has been -- bought

Six months ago, when I started to take a strong interest in the Hercules open source mainframe emulator and related antitrust issues, I participated in a Hercules-related discussion on the FFII's founder and former president Hartmut Pilch's Facebook wall.

That wall was -- and as of now still is -- publicly visible. Any Facebook user, friend or not, can read it.

In that discussion, André Rebentisch, the FFII's General Secretary (and a member of its board), claimed that the Hercules situation was a "staged drama." That is completely wrong. The entire correspondence between TurboHercules (a French open source start-up founded by the creator of the Hercules project) and IBM is available, and there's nothing staged about it. IBM threatened the little company and the founder of the open source project with patents.

On March 28 at 10:56pm, Rebentisch then said:

"You know, I was equally sceptical about Open XML campaigning..."

This refers to the FFII's "NoOOXML" efforts to oppose ISO approval of the OOXML document format standard.

In the same comment, he then suggested he might take an interest in the TurboHercules matter in exchange for money:

"As it is a multi-billion Euro business there should fly sufficient cash around [sic]. I wouldn't be willing to step into the ring without."

So even though he considered the Hercules case a "staged drama", he looked at it as a money-making opportunity for himself.

The FFII later claimed he spoke only in his own name, not for the organization. But a serious non-profit advocacy group can't let one of its officials make statements like this on its founder's public Facebook wall. Just imagine the outcry if a Greenpeace leader said that media reports of pollution by one chemical company are a "staged drama", only to add that participation in such a staged drama, despite skepticism, was negotiable provided that another company was willing to pay.

A few days later, Rebentisch told me in a Facebook email message (I certify that this an accurate, verbatim translation of what he wrote in German):

"For instance, I ran -- together with Benjamin [he meant Benjamin Henrion, the president of the FFII] -- the Open XML campaign, which was about [opposing] ISO standardization of Open XML; there was a fair amount of money behind the effort."

So Rebentisch clearly admits that his work on "open standards" and against the Microsoft-backed OOXML standard was financially motivated. In connection with what he wrote on Facebook, it's clear that money helped overcome his skepticism concerning that cause. With that email he suggests the president of the FFII might have been available on the same basis.

There are strong indications that other leaders of the FFII indeed supported Rebentisch's gun-for-hire approach all along. I have heard from a fairly high-profile source that some money from IBM was contributed, directly or indirectly, to the FFII's "open standards" effort. And the next section discusses the organization's deliberate failure to comply with EU disclosure rules, which is additionally telling.

Consistent refusal to disclose amounts and sources of funding under the EU transparency initiative

In June 2008, the European Commission launched its long-awaited European Transparency Initiative aiming to provide the public with information on the funding of lobbying entities.

Ever since the "register of interest representatives" was started, the FFII has refused to sign up. Registration should take place annually. It's formally voluntary, but more than 3,000 lobbying entities have signed up, and the FFII continually engages in lobbying, so it could be reasonably expected to disclose its funding.

By contrast, I haven't done any lobbying work since the register was started. If I did, I would certainly sign up.

Earlier this month I made the FFII aware -- via email and Twitter - of its failure to do so. All that came back was pure hypocrisy and diversionary tactics. They claimed that they didn't have to register because they represent the interests of civil society (the previous section proved that's not really the case) and that the FFII was disappointed that the EU didn't agree on stronger transparency measures. That's incredible. If they don't think the initiative goes far enough, they should lead by example and at least comply with the rules as they stand (they could still advocate even stricter rules). The reason for the creation of the register is precisely that organizations like the FFII often misrepresent who really backs them and for what purposes; the register is meant to shed some light on that.

In my opinion, the most plausible explanation is that the FFII has something to hide.

This is particularly disgraceful when considering the FFII's long-standing smear of honorable Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) or even a director-general of the European Commission, suggesting they act as corporate stooges for money. The FFII also criticized on numerous occasions other lobby groups, claiming that those were beholden to big industry. I'm not exaggerating when saying that the FFII was similarly aggressive and vocal about those issues as some specialized "watchdog" organizations. But the FFII is like a self-proclaimed watchdog who doesn't want to be transparent himself...

It's pretty clear now that the FFII uses double standards not only in connection with "open standards" but also with transparency and disclosure.

The FFII doesn't have much official support from businesses

While actually being a small group of activists (mostly with an open source background), the FFII tries to position itself -- falsely -- as a representative of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

In reality, it doesn't have much official support from companies. As Rebentisch's statements show, there may be money from the likes of IBM secretly in play in some of their activities, but what's lacking is a significant, broadbased backing by businesses on an official basis.

Even in its heyday, the FFII wasn't really successful at getting support from companies. To give you an idea, the FFII launched in 2005 a campaign called "The Economic Majority Against Software Patents". Its objective was to demonstrate support from companies for its cause, and collectively, those companies were supposed to outweigh those supporting such patents.

The FFII received sign-ups from less than 2,000 companies with a collective revenue level of about 3.2 billion euros. An "economic majority"? No way. That number was less than 1% of the revenue level of only the most well-known supporters of software patents. In addition to unanimous support for those patents among the big players in the high-tech industry, there was also considerable support among SMEs.

The website also enabled companies to pledge financial support. Most companies didn't offer any money, and the few who did certainly didn't put their money where their mouth was. That effort was an abject failure.

By now, the FFII wouldn't even be able to demonstrate that kind of backing.

The latest example of the FFII totally overstating its support was the amicus curiae brief it filed with the US Supreme Court in the Bilski patent case. The FFII partnered with another NGO and then listed four people from the organization's network as "Global Software Professionals and Business Leaders" supporting the submission as individuals. That labeling was just ridiculous. It sounds like some really powerful, wildly successful people with a strong business background. But one of the four was Rebentisch, who to the best of my knowledge has never even had a serious job. Another one is a lawyer. The third guy runs a judo club and works as a freelance software developer (nothing wrong with that, but that's not a global business leader). The fourth person, finally, has a certain business background, more so than the three others combined, but still isn't a "global business leader" by any reasonable measure.

I don't know what the US Supreme Court thought of that overstatement. What I'm more concerned about is that the FFII tries the same make-believe approach in the EU all the time. They make submissions to the European Commission; they lobby the European Parliament all the time; and they try to influence national governments. All of that without officially representing any noteworthy part of the economy or the electorate.

And when they're not lobbying, they occasionally hang out on Twitter and online discussion boards to smear people who didn't make them a generous offer they couldn't refuse...

If you'd like to be updated on patent issues affecting free software and open source, please subscribe to my RSS feed (in the right-hand column) and/or follow me on Twitter @FOSSpatents.