From the Internet to the Corridors: How Digital Rights Advocates Influence European Union Intellectual Property Legislations

From the Internet to the Corridors: How Digital Rights Advocates Influence European Union Intellectual Property Legislations

Yana Breindl (Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0966-2.ch016


European Institutions constitute venues of access for digital rights advocacy networks wishing to influence policy-making on issues of intellectual property rights, internet regulation, and the respect of civil rights in digital environments. Inspired by the hacker imaginary and free and open source principles, digital rights advocacy networks make intensive use of internet tools in order to organize and consolidate a collective identity and build a transnational public sphere. This study focuses on the “No Software Patents” campaign that aimed at influencing the directive on the patentability of computer-implemented inventions (2002-2005) and on the “Telecoms package” campaign, with the objective to remove “graduated response” amendments within a wider set of European telecommunication directives (2007-2009). By discussing the advocacy techniques – both online and offline – that were developed by this activist network, we provide an insight into power struggles that are currently taking place in Europe, but also in other regions of the world.
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To analyze digital rights activism, we draw upon first findings from two case studies of campaigns aimed at influencing European directives. Yin (2002) defines the case study as follows: “an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context; when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident; and in which multiple sources of evidence are used” (p. 23). As research on online activism is emergent, it is particularly necessary to consider the context in which it is situated. To understand how digital rights activists proceed, one needs to look at their community and culture, the political system they wish to influence and society at large. The goal is not to achieve generalizable results but to provide an insight into an emergent movement.

The “No Software Patents” (SWPat) campaign was selected because it marks the politicization of the community, as it constitutes its first large mobilization at the European level. The “Telecoms package” campaign provides a second example of digital rights activism as it is currently taking place. If the claims of both campaigns are very different, this article aims at highlighting the similarities between the advocacy techniques used and the importance of the internet in both campaigns.

Triangulation, i.e., the use of multiple data collection techniques, is used in order to obtain reliable information. The internet itself constituted a crucial resource for collecting the data sets supporting this analysis. The dataset comprises documents generated by the activists themselves. These are messages posted on mailing lists, documents and analyses published on websites3. For “No SWPat”, written testimonies of campaigners not active anymore have also been taken into account.

The second data set consists of transcripts of in-depth interviews with leading campaigners, some involved in both campaigns, from February 2008 to April 2009. The selection of activists followed a “snowball sampling” strategy, according to which initial contact was made with a small group of campaigners based in Brussels, who then suggested other potential interviewees. Additionally, exploratory interviews with parliamentary assistants provide the viewpoint of the “targets” of such campaigns. This is helpful in order to grasp how internet-based advocacy is received by decision-makers. In total ten activists, one parliamentary assistant and two political advisors have been questioned about these particular campaigns. All data sets have been analyzed using the qualitative analysis software TamsAnalyzer, following a thematic, inductive inspection.

Contestation against software patents crystallized around the project for a directive on “computer-implemented innovations” (CII), proposed by the European Commission in February 2002 with the view to harmonize national legislations. From the very start of the legislative project, free and open source software developers, users and supporters criticized the fact that the directive would compromise the non-patentability of software as established by the European Patent Convention of 1973. Opposition converged around the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, a Munich-based nonprofit association, as well as the EuroLinux Alliance, an open coalition of software patent critics, with mobilizations at all stages of the co-decision procedure4. A transnational network of activists present in most member States emerged, which allowed the movement to act both at the national and European level. The campaign proved effective in mobilizing a large array of opponents on a highly technical issue, resulting in street demonstrations and the division of the European Parliament that ultimately lead to the rejection of the directive on July 6, 2005.

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