Helping the European Parliament to release its own free software

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For the first time, the European Parliament is about to release one of its own programs as Free Software. The program in question is called AT4AM, short for "Automatic Tool for Amendments". The Parliament is in the business of making laws, and AT4AM automates a lot of the formal stuff associated with the production process.

To understand what AT4AM means for MEPs and their staff, have a look at how amendments were filed before, and how it works now. (Vimeo. Flash required, sorry.) Parliament staffer Erik Josefsson compared the introduction of AT4AM to the arrival of version control for developers. It's been in use inside the parliament for about 18 months, and it's a pretty fundamental tool for the people working there.

So we were happy to read in May that the Parliament was going to release AT4AM as Free Software. Last week, the parliament's Free Software user group held an event to discuss the right license under which to publish AT4AM. Attending were not only a crowd of people from outside the Parliament, but also the Parliament's own AT4AM development team. (Presentations and video recordings here.)

(By the way, you're welcome to participate in the European Parliament Free Software User Group!)

I went there to talk about Free Software and democracy. AT4AM encodes a large part of the process of how laws are made - it's literally an instrument of power. The European Parliament is bound to the highest standards of transparency, and releasing AT4AM means that everyone can have a look at the way Europe's laws are made. While this isn't exactly a revolution, it's good to see the Parliament finally engage with Free Software.

FSFE General Counsel (and genius Free Software lawyer) Carlo Piana got down to the business of picking the right license for AT4AM. The development team wants other parliaments to use, study, share and improve the program, and feed their improvements back into the main branch. AT4AM is a server-based application, and using it on a server doesn't count as "distribution" under the GPL. Given those inputs, picking the license wasn't hard. He recommended that the Parliament should release the tool under AGPLv3 or any later version of the license. This way, everyone could take the software and do as they please.At the same time, once the program is released, there would be no way to take it away from the public again.

In addition, the developers might consider using the EUPL as a second license. This isn't compatible with GPLv3, and opens a back door towards making future versions of the program proprietary again. But since the license is developed by the European Commission, it sometimes helps to overcome the fears of public-sector decision makers who are dipping their toe into the Free Software waters for the first time.

The Parliament's attitude to Free Software remains ambivalent. On the face of it, releasing AT4AM is a nice step forward, but hardly a revolutionary one. Public-sector platforms like Joinup and its associated forges currently host more than 4000 programs released by public bodies under Free Software licenses. Some governments, most recently in Spain's Basque Country region, have made releasing publicly funded software the default procedure.

On the other hand, there's the Parliament administration, which instinctively recoils from anything that looks different from their usual ways. When Nick Stenning filed a Freedom of Information request for AT4AM's source code and database on April 1, there was a drawn-out discussion, which currently ends with a lengthy "no" from the Parliament's Secretary General.We're currently also waiting for the Parliament's administration to report on its use and development of Free Software.

And there's so much more we'd like to see from the European Parliament in terms of transparency. Why not give the public read access to the EP's internal AT4AM system, so that we could follow laws being made in real time? Why not give every MEP and staffer a Free Software desktop for their daily work? And when will the Parliament, and every other European institution, finally give the public what they're due, and release all programs that were developed with public funds as Free Software?

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