20 Years FSFE: Interview with Nico Rikken on country teams' activities
In our fifth birthday publication we are interviewing Nico Rikken, and we focus on the FSFE Netherlands country team. Through our discussion you can also get a glimpse of how FSFE country teams work. And if there is no FSFE team in your country, this is a great opportunity for you to see how one forms.
Nico Rikken, an electrical engineer and programmer, is one of the Coordinators of the FSFE Netherlands country team. His interest in technology, combined with his appreciation for community and disdain for central control, led him to the FSFE in 2014. Since then, he has helped the FSFE with his technical skills while contributing greatly to community building. With this interview, you do not only get to meet Nico Rikken, but also the FSFE Netherlands country team.
Interview with Nico Rikken
FSFE: Do you remember the first contact you had with the FSFE? How did it evolve from there?
Nico Rikken: I do remember most of my 'firsts' I had with the FSFE. Strictly my first contact was reading the FSFE website and becoming a Fellow (the construct at that time). But after this quite formal arrangement I was looking for more informal contact and a feeling of community. So I still have good memories how Felix Stegerman, then Deputy Coordinator Netherlands, invited me to the Linux Nijmegen User Group to get to know each other and learn more about the FSFE. Up until that evening my efforts in Free Software were a solo effort and that changed in that evening. I became part of a larger community of like-minded people, thanks to Felix.
Up until that evening my efforts in Free Software were a solo effort and that changed in that evening. I became part of a larger community of like-minded people, thanks to Felix.
Later that year I attended my first Free Software conference, T-Dose, and a few months later my first FOSDEM. From there my FSFE journey evolved with events, booths, presentations, community events, political efforts, and meeting ever more community members along the way. In 2019, André and I took over Coordinatorship from Maurice Verheesen and Felix with the goal to give a new impulse to the local group. We have a growing group of active supporters with multiple ongoing activities, which I feel proud to be a part of.
Together with André Ockers you coordinate the FSFE's country team in the Netherlands. Can you describe to us a typical month in terms of activities and engagement within the community?
Since the pandemic, the monthly online get-together has become the heartbeat of the Netherlands country team. The lack of travel has enabled us to meet more frequently and have a great attendance. Before we would meet in the center of the Netherlands at the NLLGG Linux User Group, but that required travel and so the turnout was quite low. During our online get-togethers, we discuss a variety of topics, from recent news and personal findings, to more strategic opportunities to present the topic of Free Software, and ongoing efforts. André and I facilitate by acting as a bridge to the rest of the FSFE and to other organizations.
In the last months we have seen rising demands for digital autonomy in the Netherlands followed by positive developments regarding Router Freedom. How do you see these developments? What was the role of the FSFE Netherlands country team?
I'm very concerned about the lack of Free Software and Open Hardware adoption in the Netherlands, and the whole of Europe and the world for that matter. Increasingly we rely on computer systems rather than humans. This automation does bring a lot of benefits, but also comes with risks of losing transparency, losing privacy, and centralizing control. With the wide-scale adoption of cloud services, AI, and algorithms and an increase in cyber attacks, more and more people become aware of the need for better solutions and more regulation. I see Free Software, Open Standards, and Open Hardware as ways to improve technology itself and the social structures around it, and so I think we need more of them and they need to be prioritized by our governments.
I see Free Software, Open Standards, and Open Hardware as ways to improve technology itself and the social structures around it, and so I think we need more of them and they need to be prioritized by our governments.
The issue of the Netherlands (citizens, companies, and government) becoming too reliant on specific vendors and solutions is not new and has been discussed many times over the last years. In that sense, this report by the Dutch Cyber Security Council was just another call for change. As this report comes from an organization closer to government and the call has urgency to it, hopefully we will see some more action from companies and government. When called upon to vote, Dutch PM's generally are in favor of adopting Open Standards and Free Software, but in practice it is low on the priority list and so the government is not held accountable to follow up. The role of the country team in this respect is limited. Rijk Ravestein wrote an article reviewing the report and suggesting the adoption of Free Software as a viable solution to this issue. Outside of the article, we have been speaking with various government bodies on the topic of Free Software to highlight opportunities and discuss ways to improve the situation. I find it important that we not only follow the developments critically but that we also constructively engage in discussions where we can.
The topic of router freedom is quite different. The Router Freedom campaign has made our members take a closer look at the situation in the Netherlands. This included André writing Internet Service Providers (ISP's) about their practices and Kevin Keijzer informing us how router freedom works out for him in practice. Kevin has some of his findings documented on his wiki page. Router Freedom in the Netherlands in practice wasn't too bad, but there are now stronger guarantees in place. I think the practical freedom that was already in place stems from the tech-savvy community in the Netherlands that would already install their own router rather than the one provided by the ISP. These new more formal guarantees can be attributed to the lobbying of the FSFE in Europe and not to the country team in the Netherlands. The FSFE contributed to the BEREC Guidelines on the Implementation of the Open Internet Regulation, which were quoted as the reason for the new rules. In the Netherlands, we missed the opportunity of the consultation on the new rules as this was not on our news radar. The consultation was mostly by ISP's opposing the new rules, but regardless the rules were put in place in accordance with the BEREC Guidelines.
What do you see as the most rewarding activities or biggest achievements of the Dutch team?
This question is difficult to answer because our activities have been diverse and some have been in collaboration with people outside of the country team. I think our biggest achievement has been the level of translation of the FSFE website and marketing material. André has been a persistent translator and together with other valued contributions from other community members we now have most of the information material and news in Dutch for an increased reach and impact.
I think our biggest impact came from our involvement with the recent court case by Jos van den Oever about getting the source code of the Debat Direct App. This was not strictly a country team effort, but we were involved and also got support from the FSFE. The final verdict didn't result in public source code, but through the court case Jos showed that source code can be requested via a Freedom Of Information (FOI) request. The success will depend on the specific situation and country-specific implementation of the EU directive. Inspired by this request, Daniel Joffe has also filed a request for source code and I'm pretty sure this will not be the last legal request for source code in the Netherlands.
What would you say are peculiar factors that challenge or facilitate the advance of Free Software in the Netherlands?
Please take my answer with a pinch of salt, as this comes down to personal convictions and generalizations. I think for a start the broader tech-savvy community in the Netherlands is helpful. There are plenty of system administrators and programmers who value control over technology from a do-it-yourself perspective and so have an inherent preference for Free Software, Open Standards, and solutions that protect user privacy. This group follows developments or regulation and company offerings with a critical eye on forums like Tweakers or technology podcasts which helps move forward the discussion on these FSFE-related topics. There is also a smaller but active group that shares our concerns from an ethical non-technical perspective by questioning our reliance on big tech and the privacy violations that typically go along with it. Both groups move the debate of user control and digital sovereignty forward and nudge politics, government, and companies in the right direction.
I think this critical view on technology is strengthened on the level of the European Union where these countries align and do favor a more strategic play for which Free Software makes a lot of sense.
Possibly our biggest factor is our participation in the European Union, as it seems to me that the European Union has more capacity to develop policies to protect civil rights and regulate digital infrastructure. On a national level this topic doesn't win deciding votes in the election, so it is hardly discussed in public. Also there is a general lack of knowledge about technology and its social constructs in parliament to question current policy and develop a new one. I get the impression that a large part of the IT solutions in the Netherlands are centered around US vendors. And so regulations that prevent companies storing private information in the USA are considered a burden on companies, rather than a good safeguard for the general public. My impression is that it is more common in France and Germany to question offerings by US vendors and to prefer national offerings. These regulations do not directly relate to the adoption of Free Software, but I do think that questioning the ethics of offerings and valuing digital sovereignty are the moral grounds which fit well with Free Software. I think this critical view on technology is strengthened on the level of the European Union where these countries align and do favor a more strategic play for which Free Software makes a lot of sense. In that sense I think the European Union is also advancing Free Software in the Netherlands.
How can people start participating in the Dutch team? Can you share some examples of how the existing members found out about the FSFE Netherlands country team?
The easiest is to join the conversation on XMPP or our online get-togethers and align with our efforts there. We do have a mailing list but in practice it is only used for announcements. As we are all volunteers, I think it is important that our supporters do what they enjoy doing. Most of us have our own topics and efforts we work on, and the country team is a way to align and get support. As with any work, formulating concrete steps and delegating work to others can be a challenge. So I think there is an opportunity for more collaboration between supporters on certain topics and hopefully that will grow in the future when we gain more experience working together.
I have asked around and it seems our stories of joining the country team are quite similar. People somehow gained in interest in Free Software and found the FSFE as the designated party to uphold these values in Europe. Then they found out about the NL country team, joined the mailing list and attended a physical meeting. André also met Felix at Linux Nijmegen as it was close to him, but for Kevin living on the other side of the country the T-Dose conference was the first time to physically meet the community. If anything I think it highlights the importance of letting people know you exist as a local team, being open to newcomers, and making it easy to join community meetings.
What are your recommendations for others who want to start local activities for the FSFE? Although the Netherlands FSFE country team was already formed when you joined, could you recall some of the early activities carried out there?
First, I think it is good to know what sets the FSFE apart from other organizations. In the Netherlands, there are various other groups with similar or even the same members, like a Linux user group, a Debian community, the digital rights organization Bits of Freedom, and multiple hacker spaces. Although at the FSFE we talk plenty about technology, our focus at the FSFE is to inform the general public and to bring about policy change. As a result our community has a different aim than other Free Software related communities in the Netherlands, and knowing the difference can help you stand out and attract like-minded people. I don't know exactly how it started in the Netherlands, but the behavior I typically see with forming new groups is to start with like-minded people you already know, announce your presence in related communities, and then just start holding open meetings and let it grow from there.
Over the last few years, we did experience such a growth path in the Netherlands. There was already a national group that communicated via mail and chat, and we would have a booth and country team meeting at the yearly T-Dose conference. Other activities were organized mainly when the opportunity arose. We increased our frequency of contact by having a stand at the bi-monthly NLLGG meeting in Utrecht where some of our supporters would be present, and we had the opportunity to meet like-minded people. The online get-togethers let us spend more time to grow and align our local group and cause plenty of people to join the conversation. Some people joined for only one meeting, which I think is fine as it was still a nice way to meet, and these relationships might be helpful in the future. And from these conversations new ideas for activities grew. Only recently we started having a more formal agenda and minutes of our meetings as we'd often have more talking points than time would allow.
Don't think our relative success is the straightforward execution of an upfront well laid-out plan. Growing a community is very much an iterative process based on learning and feedback. Our supporters become active because they want to make a difference in the world, and we have to find the ways that suit us best. Personally I like to take things one step at a time, just make one change or do one activity and see where it leads. In doing so, we have developed our own way of doing things and have gained a lot of experience with a variety of activities. Say we want to write a letter to politicians, then we have some earlier work already lying around for potential reuse, and we know already what support we can expect from the FSFE Core team and what part we have to provide ourselves.
Don't think our relative success is the straightforward execution of an upfront well laid-out plan. Growing a community is very much an iterative process based on learning and feedback.
Our activities have been quite diverse. There is of course an ongoing effort to translate information material. We wrote to national and local politicians on multiple occasions based on various developments and news articles. We took part in multiple consultations on laws and policies and offered our expertise on free software to government. We have had stands at the yearly T-Dose conference and bi-monthly NLLGG meetings. We handed out FSFE tool flyers in a university and a library. We gave presentations about Free Software. We helped organize an Educational Freedom Day and the SHA hacker camp. We organized a privacy café at Erasmus University to educate media students about solutions to protect your privacy. We hosted a Freedomvote for national elections. And we were involved in the court case for the source code of Debat Direct. From the diversity of topics and methods it is apparent that activities were sparked from opportunity or interest by our community members. The campaigns from the FSFE help us to prioritize and link our efforts to a topic, but we don't feel constrained to just the campaigns. I have found that politics especially requires a strong organization because topics can become big quite quickly. Ideally, you want to play into that attention span and so you have to act fast. Also politics revolves around the election cycles and so every couple of years you have to start all over explaining to politicians why Free Software is common sense and should be on their agenda.
How did you get involved in Free Software in the first place?
From a young age I spent a significant amount of time on the computer, experimenting with various software also as a creative outlet. Being a kid I mostly started out with gratis software that came bundled with our computer or printer. With the arrival of unlimited internet downloading, other software became an option. I learned about the importance of open standards and access to software because I had encountered situations where I could no longer open my files as software had become unavailable due to operating system incompatibility or the expiration of the trial duration. Using various gratis software over time I found out that the Free Software was generally the best, not having annoying advertisements or spyware and generally being well-documented. I learned the value of Free Software and Open Standards the hard way, from a practical standpoint, and so it was not very explicit.
Once at the University studying Electrical Engineering, I learned more about programming and how computers were built. But during that time I also learned more about privacy and security and how my privacy was actually being violated by a lot of services I was using. Being technically educated it was clear to me that to guarantee privacy and security in the long run you need control over technology and so over the software you are using. Following this reasoning led me to discover the philosophy behind Free Software. The value of Free Software felt so logical at that point I asked myself why I did not find out about it earlier. Not just the practical implications of it, but also the philosophy behind it. I felt that Free Software needed more promotion to the general public and that is why I joined the FSFE, to support their effort in promoting this common sense.
Can you tell us one of the stories that still warm up your heart or that always makes you laugh or smile when you remember it?
I always have a laugh thinking back to the time I visited Open Rhein Ruhr with Maurice in 2016. If I remember correctly, we got a call in the morning by Matthias Kirschner that we had to bring 'Bügel' (clothing hangers) to hang the T-shirts at the stands. Normally Maurice and I could cope with the German we got taught in secondary school, but this time it failed us. Maurice understood the word 'Bügel' to mean a clothing iron from the conversation ("Bügeleisen"), assuming the T-shirts were crinkled and had to be ironed. As Matthias had asked for two, Maurice asked me to bring mine as well. So we both added our clothing irons to the luggage and off we went. Only when we arrived at the booth did we find out about the miscommunication and had a great laugh about it. We took this memorable picture posted on the blogpost by Max Mehl.
As a last question, what do you wish the FSFE for the next 20 years?
I wish the FSFE will gain more active local supporters. I think the FSFE stands out from other organizations with the topics it addresses, and I would love to see each European nation have a fruitful local group to table the topic on a national level. In a world using mostly the same software and being bound by the same EU directives, the foundation of our activities will probably be similar in all countries. But each country comes with a different language, different political system, different values and norms, and various other differences. By having a strong local representation, the FSFE can be 'united in diversity' (EU motto) and be more effective in bringing about change. I also wish this because I have a good time being part of the FSFE and a local group, and I think there are a lot of like-minded people that would also enjoy it. So I wish other supporters can be a part of a local group and also experience the value of community.
I think the FSFE stands out from other organizations with the topics it addresses, and I would love to see each European nation have a fruitful local group to table the topic on a national level.
FSFE: Thank you very much!
For more by Nico Rikken, you can read his interview focusing on technical aspects of Free Software and Free Hardware such as sustainability and scaling. You may also be interested in his blogpost on how the Netherlands group grew in covid times.
About "20 Years FSFE"
In 2021 the Free Software Foundation Europe turns 20. This means two decades of empowering users to control technology.
Turning 20 is a time when we like to take a breath and to look back on the road we have come, to reflect the milestones we have passed, the successes we have achieved, the stories we have written, and the moments that brought us together and that we will always joyfully remember. In 2021 we want to give momentum to the FSFE and even more to our pan-European community, the community that has formed and always will form the shoulders that our movement relies on.
20 Years FSFE is meant to be a celebration of everyone who has accompanied us in the past or still does. Thank you for your place in the structure of the FSFE today and for setting the foundation for the next decades of software freedom to come.