The Fellowship program was officially launched at FOSDEM -- the Free and Open Source Developers' European Meeting -- with the call to "stand up to protect our freedom to shape and participate in a digital society that respects liberty and privacy." Its logo encapsulates the aims of the program: a person, representing the freedom for individuals, that looks like an addition symbol, reflecting the community as a sum of its parts, with each fellow adding something.
Fellowship costs €120 per year (€60 for students). For this, Fellows can log in to the Fellowship Web site, where they can communicate and coordinate their activities with other Fellows. There is space for personal blogs, forums, and news. Fellows also receive a personalised OpenPGP-compliant SmartCard, programmed and handled by Werner Koch, author of GnuPG and Head of Office of the FSFE. This is as much a symbolic gesture as a practical security tool, demonstrating the FSFE's commitment to security and privacy. Fellows can enjoy a more decentralised community than Associate Members of the FSF, with horizontal communication and activity between Fellows facilitated by the Web site and strongly encouraged by the FSFE.
But the fellowship is about more than mere membership. The FSFE already brings together a loose coalition of national organisations from around Europe called Associate Organisations. These are run independently of the FSFE, and have been providing a basis for communication and free software activism for several years. But they are by their nature disconnected at times, leaving both a perceived and real gap between grassroots activity on a national level and on a European level. The Fellowship aims in part to bridge this gap.
The FSFE has been active in a number of spheres for some time now. It has been working with the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure against software patents; has been engaged in the European Commission case with Microsoft, putting the free software community's case forward; has observer status in the UN's "intellectual property" body WIPO, giving it access to the decisions that shape European laws; and is involved in a variety of other small activites throughout Europe including a specialised audio GNU/Linux system, a business network, the Brave GNU World newsletter, and more.
When faced with legislation like the Intellectual Property Enforcement Directive (IPRED) and the European Union Copyright Directive and the threat of software patents on the horizon, FSFE aims to provide a coordinated response at the European and global levels to keep free software practical and legal to use and develop.
One immediate problem with the FSFE's existing approach is that it seems difficult to get involved. People have been able to join mailing lists for trade show booths and translation work, but these are far from jumping into political activism. Georg Greve, president of the FSFE, admitted to NewsForge that "activists often need a very high level of personal commitment," but suggested that the Fellowship program "will give the Fellows more information, easier access to some internal channels and considerations, and more ways of interaction. It will make it much easier to get 'a little bit' or 'somewhat' involved."
Greve also hopes that FSFE's Associate Organisations will become involved, so that they will form a seamless whole across Europe. On the other hand, that could create even more confusion, with yet more mailing lists, forums, and organisational structures for users to choose between when they want to become more involved. Another problem may arise with the conflicting opinions of Fellows. What would the Marxist hackers from Project Oekonux make of the business network, if they were to join en masse? How can the members move forward on divisive issues, and avoid getting caught in protracted arguments? Greve suggested to NewsForge that "lively dialogs can be a very good thing."
Greve hopes that the collective experience and resources of the FSFE, its Associate Organisations, and those who join the Fellowship program can make this work. He assured NewsForge that he is "pretty confident that our associates, volunteers, and activists will turn it into a lively and interesting community."