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At Framasoft, Kittens to get out of GAFA

Framasoft's stand during the Paris Open Source Summit, which was held on December 10 and 11. Bastien Lion / The World

On one side of the ring, an association which has thirty-five members and nine employees, scattered all over France. On the other, the mastodons of the world’s web: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft… the famous GAFAs. To say that this opposition is unbalanced would be a slight understatement.

However, Framasoft stands firm – echoing its slogan: “The road is long, but the way is clear. “ Its initiative “Deooglons Internet”, a campaign to develop free tools as an alternative to solutions from digital giants, has been a success which “Took by surprise” the association, when it drew up a first assessment in 2017.

Distance from the State

Before finding such a resonance, Framasoft was born at the very end of the 1990s, in a college in Bobigny (Seine-Saint-Denis). Respectively teachers of French and mathematics, Caroline of Atabekian and Alexis Kauffmann launched an educational project called “Framanet” on the establishment's intranet: an acronym formed from FRAnçais, MAths and intraNET. One of the subsections of this program lists the different free and open source software that teachers can use on Windows. This is Framasoft.

Alexis Kauffmann then saw in the philosophy of free software a reasoning similar to that of his discipline:

“There was a time when code was shared like math. Imagine that to use Pythagoras' theorem, one has to pay copyright fees. Let there be a small group of Pythagoreans who would lock it up and trust it. That’s what happened when we closed the code. “

Framasoft became an association in 2004, co-founded by Alexis Kauffmann. From its teaching roots, it retains in its beginnings a strong link with national education, convinced that free software will be at the heart of the digital projects of the State. The math teacher gradually fell from the top.

In November 2015, the Minister of National Education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, signed a partnership with Microsoft. A year later, when this partnership was denounced in court by the EduNathon collective, which then brought together several activist associations for free software, Framasoft published a vindictive post.

“We quickly realized that free software, by its gratuitousness, was only perceived as a pressure lever in the negotiations to force Microsoft to lower its prices”, says Pierre-Yves Gosset, current director of Framasoft. The association has since sought to move away from state authorities for its projects, and to devote itself to popular education, in particular by addressing other associations.

37 online services

The appearance of new Web practices had, however, initially fascinated the members of the collective. Projects like Google and Facebook were seen as potential carriers of messages specific to the values ​​of knowledge sharing, and by extension free software. “Framasoft has long used Google services, we even had Google advertising at one time”, recalls Pierre-Yves Gosset. “Suffice to say that we were all very disappointed”, he scoffs now.

In 2013, Edward Snowden's revelations about digital espionage led by the United States and the United Kingdom, based on the personal data of Internet users, are a cold shower. “We could not sit idly by, we had to offer an alternative. It took eight to ten months to detoxify ourselves. How long would it take for a lambda neighborhood association? “, remembers Pierre-Yves Gosset.

From this reflection was born the operation “Dégooglisons Internet” in 2014. Collaborative work tools, form generator, mapping, agenda, organization applications… Five years later, the 37 online services created and brought together are used by about 600,000 people every month, who have found alternatives to consumer apps mainly provided by Google.

However, this is the moment chosen by Framasoft to announce, in September 2019, the closure, or restriction, of about 20 of these services by 2022. A decision presented as logical. If Framadate (alternative to Doodle, 38,000 monthly uploads) or Framapad (Google Doc, 387,000 occurrences created) are among the survivors, others have not taken off and are today too heavy to maintain in comparison with their low audience.

This is the case of Framabee, a search engine aggregator, which became unusable in part because Google refused to process queries from the free tool. Framacalc, an online collaborative spreadsheet, for its part leaves too heavy a technical debt to the association. While Framalink (link shortener) or Framapic (anonymous image sharing) required significant human resources to monitor their potential fraudulent use.

Kittens resist

Behind these announcements, Framasoft also pursues its ideal of decentralization, and refuses to become an additional silo concentrating hundreds of thousands of users. “We didn't want to turn into a free service provider, asserts Christophe Masutti, former president of Framasoft until 2014. From the start, the goal was not to gain weight, but to show that it can work differently. “

The announced “deframasoftisation of the Internet” does not mean the end of Framasoft, but rather a change in operating mode. Its new projects are driven by a strong logic of decentralization, as shown by the Kittens (Collective of alternative, transparent, open, neutral and united hosts), initiated in 2016. Framasoft thus wishes to allow collectives, everywhere in France, to offer locally hosted services, whether or not they are inspired by the tools developed during the “Deglooglisons” operation.

At the end of 2019, 61 kittens, including that of Framasoft, exist in France. Each one has its own functioning, its own rules, even if all of them communicate with each other according to a federation system. Tools are developed in a similar fashion: PeerTube, the alternative to YouTube on which Framasoft has been working since 2018, relies for example on a network of instances created, hosted and administered by independent Internet users. It is also on this principle that Mobilizon is built, a tool still in beta version, which wants to give alternatives to Facebook “Events” and “Groups”.

Far from being hampered by the end of its “Deooglons” era, Framasoft has re-invited itself under a new code name: “Contributopia”. It remains to be seen whether the mayonnaise will take. Even if it relies on its relationships with the associative fabric to disseminate its message, Framasoft is likely to come up against an opinion often very little concerned with the challenges of digital carried by its followers. “I am afraid that the speech is more aimed at the France of” Night standing “than in that of” yellow vests “”, summarizes Alexis Kauffmann, who left the association in 2014.

Fearing a “Old-fashioned solidarity mechanisms”, Pierre-Yves Gosset still wants to remain optimistic: “When we launched” Deooglons Internet “, it was a bit like climbing the Himalayas in flip flops, but we ended up doing it pretty well. Just because a battle is likely to be lost doesn't mean you don't have to fight it. “

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