La Quadrature is ten years old! Assessing the past and opening fresh perspectives

This year, La Quadrature du Net celebrates its tenth year anniversary. It has been a long road since March 2008, where in the face of a disturbing wave of repressive policies, five activists –  Christophe Espern, Jérémie Zimmermann, Philippe Aigrain, Gérald Sedrati-Dinet and Benjamin Sonntag, who had met during the fight against the DADVSI law and software patents and for the promotion of commons – decided to create a collective to carry the values of the Free Internet against repeated mercantile and securitarian threats.

La Quadrature has since had its share of successes. It has become an important defender of fundamental rights in the digital era, both at a French and International level. Along the way, it has developed strong and productive ties with many activists groups and individuals.

But in ten years, a lot of things have changed, whether it is the internal organization of what has now became a registered non-profit association, or its environment. Today, we want to learn from our mistakes and reflect on our methods and modes of operation. This is the main goal of this document, which is the result of internal exchanges and discussions: to offer a critical assessment of where we are now, and using this diagnosis as a starting point, draw some paths for the future, which will need to be discussed and specified in the coming months.

This road-map consists of three parts:

  • Identity: we want to clarify and explain what La Quadrature du Net is, what is its purpose, what it wants to embody and how it wishes to do so.
  • Governance: we want to recognize and officialize that the circle of those participating in LQDN and to its actions has grown.
  • Core tasks: we need to question our approach to legal analysis and political advocacy, but also think about the best ways to work towards “digital empowerment.”

1. Identity: what La Quadrature du Net is

In ten years, the context surrounding La Quadrature has changed profoundly. In particular, it has been marked by an acceleration of security-obssessed policies and a tightening of the democratic space surrounding public institutions and the public sphere in general. A political trend doubled by the expansion of technocratic computing and the further hybridization of states and large corporations in the process. This movement can be observed in the proliferation of mass surveillance (private as well as public) and extrajudicial censorship, criminalization of sharing, and more generally, in the further centralization and commodification of the digital infrastructure.

Fortunately, the alternative, free and decentralized Internet holds its flag. A dense milieu of digital activism and progressively resurfaced in France. From Framasoft to April, including FDN Federation, Nos Oignons, even small companies and a lot of groups are working relentlessly in collaboration with other organisations throughout the world to help networked computing be a tool for emancipation rather than social control.

In this French digital activism fabric, La Quadrature du Net followed in the wake of pioneer organizations such as the Association des utilisateurs d’Internet or IRIS (Imaginons un Réseau Internet Solidaire), who since the nineties had specialized in defending fundamental rights on the Internet. As such, and particularly on the occasion of battles against security laws that were adopted since 2013, it has established numerous links with other organisazations for the defense of human rights, as did its partners of the Observatoire des Libertés et du Numérique (OLN) such as Amnesty International France, the CECIL, the Creis-Terminal, the League of Human Rights, a Lawyers Union (Syndicat des avocats de France) and a Judges Union (Syndicat de la magistrature).

At the international level, its expertise and its analysis are acknowledged and appreciated by many organizations of the digital activism, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but also big NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and also some international organisations dedicated to the defense of fundamental rights (UNO, Council of Europe).

In this activist scene, LQDN stands at a key position, at the interface of a Free Software movement, inspired by the emancipating ethic of hackers and other pioneers of the Free Internet, and human rights organizations, whether they are French or not. Its is that it is a French organization that works for the construction and the political and legal defense of the Free Internet, and more generally of the fundamental rights at the digital age.

From there, some important details about how it works are necessary. Firstly, La Quadrature acts in three ways:

  • By producing and submitting to the public debate analysis of the political and legal stakes of our computerized world, and about its possible futures ("doctrine"). It prefers to do it as far as possible by anticipating rather than by reacting, and this, in order to draw an alternative trajectory to the technocratic hegemony promoted by the alliance of states and the big multinational companies of the digital industry.
  • Then by engaging in political and legal advocacy to bring this analysis in front of those who are in position of power ("advocacy"). In addition to the parliamentarians, the courts, the governments, the European Commission, or independent administrative authorities, we want to convey these advocacy strategies to everybody, to encourage their appropriations by others, be they organizations or citizen groups.
  • By raising awareness and by training various groups and individuals, as a way of promoting our vision of the digital and the practices that ensue, of enriching them thanks to the expertise of of all, and in this way spread them across society ("popular education"). This is, for example, to ensure that our allies in the activist world are able to grasp some tools and develop methods that emancipate them from the surveillance and censorship. This is also a way ensure that as many people as possible can understand the political stakes surrounding computers and use them in a reasoned way.

But what else? Once we have listed all these big action streams, some principles can define our "style":

  • First of all, we wish to engage in activism with joy, the pleasure of encounters, the sharing of experience, solidarity and humor. The state of the world is what it is, but it is a way to protect ourselves from it, and act best to transform it.
  • We also wish to diversify our modes of expression and our formats, from the deepest legal analysis to the most poetic artistic intervention. This implies (we will come back to this) the diversification of the profiles of those who take part to the organization.
  • We want to act in exchange with other collectives that share with us the same values. These last years, we have started a fertile dialog with communities, some of whcih may seem quite remote from the cause of the Free Internet: organizations working for the social and environmental justice, the rights of the migrants, the fight against racism et sexism, etc. While keeping our specificity, we want to pursue and deepen these exchanges and work at our scale to enact activist convergences.
  • If we admit having privileged friends and allies, and if we do not compromise about our values, nevertheless we stay non-partisan, and are able to dialogue with anyone, including our opponents who, in some circumstances, can become allies.
  • Lastly; if we allow ourselves the freedom to defend or work actively with those that share our values, we remain deeply attached to the principle that the Rule of Law applies to all, including those with whom we are in radical opposition (for example, we consider thate extra-judicial censorship does not become more acceptable in its principle when applied to hate speech).

2. Governance of the organization

Withing ten years and especially over the last four years, La Quadrature has evolved a lot. It has move from being a de facto organization without real funding source to a "Loi de 1901" association now hiring 6 full-time staff members with an annual budget of 350,000 to 400,000 euros. Besides, it has become a recognized player to debate on the freedom at the digital era and receives many external requests (for public interventions for example, while creating strong expectrations (especially to take a stance on many concerns surrounding the digital world).

For a long time, the founding members of La Quadrature have admitted a rather vertical governance. The organization was applying in detail the political lines and positions that made consensus among themselves. The stance of the "five guys in a garage" was that if for such and such reason, the people that followed LQDN were to disagree with its orientations, they could just build their own organization. We did not claim to be representative, despite the fact that our group had come to concentrate a certain visibility and expectations.

In this vertical configuration which had its initial relevance and justifications, even the paid staff often found itself in a situation where they had to wait for instructions coming from a small Administration Board comprised of volunteers, which at time found itself unable to fulfill all of its duties. Similarly, betweenthe paid staff and volunteer activists, some verticality was progressively established. Due to a lack of space that would allow for a better participation of these supporters to define priorities and actions of the organization, most of the time it came down to having them relay and take part into actions built without them. Admittedly, "work[ing] groups" and Quadrapéros (community events) did provide a space for some exchange and emulation, but never to the point of overcoming that verticality.

This tightening of organization's governance to a handful of founding members and a small paid staff might have given some of our close supporters an impression of close-mindedness and a lack of transparency. It also concentrated a lot of pressure, stress and expectations onto the small paid staff group. Finally, despite some efforts, LQDN is still lacking diversity: it's still mostly composed of males, white people and very Parisian-centered despite some attempts to decentralize it.

It's now time to endorse the enlargment of La Quadrature. We want the long time volunteers and activists that work with us and trusted newcomers to be aknowledged as plain members of La Quadrature and give them the possibility to grow alongside us as activists. This enlargement will be done by co-optation ; the founding members and the paid staff have offered to a first group of about twenty people to join us to participate more fully to the life of the organization, to design and join its actions, with some guidelines in mind on how to proceed with this expansion of our membership:

  • help to enact this strategic review and the renewal of our action;
  • open up to new forms of expertise and activist trajectories;
  • build our presence across the French territory, with members able to act as local relays for the organization;
  • foster our ties with sister-organizations with which we want to collaborate more in the future.

Founding members and LQDN's board will remain responsible for political line, in relation with paid staff to have the final word. But strategic thinking and LQDN actions will be produced and applied with this enlarged membership, which will grow bigger in the future to include new contributors among which new board members might be picked.
Every of these members will make their contribution to the collective work by offering analyzes and organizing actions, taking part in campaigns, playing a part in the organization's internal life, or any other initiative that would be part of the missions and tasks of LDQN and which they would like to be in charge of. La Quadrature will become the addition of these commitments which the website will be able to relay and which will to benefit from the resources of the organization. No need to say that in addition to the actual members, any person who would like to submit an action or join current initiatives, of course, will remain welcome.

This enlarged Quadrature will try to release control over public expression. Every member will be able to publicly speak on their expertise topics, specially in the media, and as such will play a role in the transmission and representation of the organization. The next version of our website will include a space where any member will be able to share a personal opinion that will not engage the organisation in its entirety but will submit their contributions and analysis to the debate. By doing so, we intend to promote an open debate between activists and make disagreements inside our circles more visible to a wider audience.  Other formats will be reserved to the expression of official and consensual positions of the organization, under the responsibility of the Board and the staff.

The latter will play a coordination and facilitation role for these volunteers commitments. It will make sure to structure this collective work in order to make it as useful as possible to the missions of La Quadrature, to give it consistency and to maximize its impact. But, obviously, it cannot do everything, and it will have to be able to fully focus on the few priorities of the organization that need a daily monitoring and the building of a long term expertise. At least once a year, the General Assembly of La Quadrature will gather all members for a moment of meeting, reflection and debate.

3. Core tasks: policy advocacy, legal defense and digital empowerement

In 2016, La Quadrature announced a strategic reorientation:  doing less policy advocacy at the French level to spare time for entering action modes aimed at citizen empowerment (conferences and debates, workshops, etc.). Now, this vision is still relevant but we didn't managed to put it into actual practice, due to the lack of a clear method to do so. We decided that we needed to mobilize ourselves on new repressive bills while adopting the same type of strategy: deep legal analysis of texts, meeting with parliamentarians and amendment proposals. With, eventually, mixed results (the Bills were passed) and the feeling that we only had bad and demobilizing news to announce.

In legal action too, we need to be able to value alternative proposals and to contribute to the building of emancipated digital spaces where they will be applied. Indeed, in our activist circles, some of the builders of a Free and decentralized Internet need legal advice to help them defending our values, for instance on topics like data retention. We have to help them reduce the legal risks for their activities, and ensure that they will be able to rely upon dense solidarity networks if things go wrong. We also need to intervene in a more systematic way in legal doctrine debates to promote interpretations of the laws that are favorable to human rights. In this way, we will be able to promote our values more efficiently than by exhausting ourselves on already lost battles at the French or European parliaments.

Both of these remarks invite us to adopt some basic principles allowing us to diversify our intervention modes in the legal field:

  • First, spare our efforts in the field of policy advocacy, or rather, manage to make a step aside that will allow us to intervene more efficiently in these debates. Regarding the method, it will be a matter of systematizing a political diagnosis of a proposed legislation on which we intend to mobilize, and this as soon as it arises. Faced with a bill or directive proposal, we will have to assess the political stakes and lucidly ask ourselves whether to go or not, and with which tactics. Do we attempt to advocate classically with members of Parliament? If we anticipate closed doors, what other influence or action modes can we resort to? Such an exercise will allow us to rationalize our actions, to spare our resources in order to reinvest them in other formats whose need is more and more noticeable.
  • In addition to policy-makers, we need to promote a pro-digital rights undetstanding of Internet law, especially where ambiguities remain. For example, the non-profit Internet access providers of the FDN Federation are questionning their practices in the field of data retention after having taken into account the Digital Rights and Tele2 decisions of the European Court of Justice. We must be able to present our analysis of the case at hand and to work to facilitate the appropriation by everyone of these legal debates.
  • We also need togive a new dimension to our doctrinal influence. La Quadrature is often asked to intervene in legal colloquiums, or contribute articles for law reviews. It works hard to respond to these demands, but it is difficult to respond to all of them and seize all of these opportunities to talk with lawyers, judges and legal scholars and make them understand our stance. Thanks to the enlargment of the organization, we will be able to diversify our expertise and multiply such interventions.

An other issue we noticed in our advocacy and legal defense strategies is also that, while security policies in the digital field have become parts of institutional practices, we have not been able to mobilize beyond parliamentary debates or  litigation. We remain stuck to an often abstract speech about the Rule of Law, pointing at the risks of a given legal provisions or policies. But the latter lead to the unjust and dangerous repression of individuals or categories of persons. These actual instance of repression can allow us to embody these drifts, raise consciousness about the violence of power practices, and embody unjustice much better than a soothing press release on the "threat to fundamentals rights" would. In short, we must reinvest these cases, document them, and articulate them where this is possible and relevant to our advocacy and litigation strategies. 
Finally, we must address a last central point in the core tasks of LDQN: the tools and the digital empowerement. Since its beginning, La Quadrature has always attempted to develop tools, such as Memopol or PiPhone, that would facilitate the involvementof all in its campaigns. However, to achieve the development of these ambitious tools, resources were lacking, as well as the ex post analysis of their actual result. And even when this work was done, it was just hard to maintain these efforts for a long time with only one paid computer scientist and a rather limited community of volunteers. If these initiatives were justified and often fruitful, it is now the time to rethink the way we mobilize the technical expertise of those involved in our battles.
All this will of course be to discussed with other actors of digital activism. But it seems that alongside actors like Framasoft, the  FDN Federation, Nos Onions and even collectives with worldwide reputation like Rise Up and others we can play a specific role, precisely because of our key position between the "Free Software" circles and other activist sectors at the French level. We are not necessarily intended to become service providers, especially because many are already doing so and that would require adapting our governance structures to give the voice to the users of these services. On the other hand, we can participate in assisting such projects, help bring together activists from various political causes and the builders of the Free Internet, users and developers – as in the early days of digital activism French when initiatives such as R@S contributed to the convergence of struggles through the provision of a shared digital infrastructure, in addition to allowing a collective reflection on activist uses of the Internet.
Thanks to its many members and contributors, LQDN can also raise awareness of the dangers of certain dominant or emerging services by documenting their practices (e.g. data collection and sharing with third parties). These are just few leads that will need to be discussed and refined with our friends from the Free Internet in the coming months.

Here is the outline of where we want to take La Quadrature in the coming months and years. These reaffirmed strategic priorities thus articulate a major change in the history of our organization, namely the enlargment of its "first circle", or rather its full recognition. We want to give breath back to our collective and better serve the cause of a free and empowering Internet. While waiting to refine these guidelines with all those who would like to accept the proposal to join us, your comments are welcome!