NLnet Foundation: Funding Free Software in Europe – Lwenn Bussière

Interview with Lwenn Bussière from the NLnet Foundation

Note: This transcript contains additional clarifications provided by Michiel Leenaars. They are available indicated by italics.

Walid : new episode of Projets Libres! Today, we’re going to talk about European funding. I must admit that before starting Projets Libres!, it was a subject where I had an image of a very long, extremely complicated process, which required specialized people, etc. And one of the discoveries of the podcast, as we’re going to see today, is that there are now new ways of doing things to get simplified financing. I have to admit that it was a discovery, a very good discovery and that I told myself that I had to do an episode about it.

This year, in February 2024, at FOSDEM, I had the chance to meet the NLnet team and today, I am lucky enough to have with me Lwenn Bussière whom I will let introduce themselves afterwards. Let’s talk together about what NLnet is and its place in this whole European funding ecosystem. Lwenn, I hope you’re doing well. Welcome to the Free Projects podcast!.

Introducing Lwenn

Lwenn : Good evening, Walid. I’m delighted to be able to discuss NLnet funding with you. It was very funny when we met at FOSDEM, we had the booth with all the stickers of the projects we present and I think it made you very curious and very happy to find the stickers of different projects that you have already hosted with Projets Libres! On your podcast: Les amis de Peertube, Inventory, Castopod, Open Food Facts. And for us, it also made us very happy to see that there is communication that is also done in French free software. So, I’ve been working at NLnet since the beginning of the year. We’re based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and I came to NLnet by chance after finishing a PhD in philosophy.

I’ve been in free software more as a user since I was about 14 or 15 years old. When I start Linux, I think of high school. But it was never… Finally, programming was always something that was for others. Except that by doing more research, I found myself using a lot more tools and looking for free and open alternatives in the context of academic research in philosophy. It was something that was close to my heart, that fascinated me. And in fact, when I was looking for a job after my PhD, leaving research, a friend who was close to the NLnet people told me that they were hiring people to evaluate project proposals, funding proposals, and then communicate with the projects that we decide to fund and therefore do all this work internally as a funding officer, Let’s say.

So, the work is in English, so there’s going to be some problems in the translation episode, I’m going to do my best, but…

Walid : Don’t worry, anyway, I’ll make a transcription afterwards in which I write down in French all the English words we use.

Lwenn : That’s it. So yes, I joined NLnet in January and it’s been a pleasure to work ever since.

Walid : Where did you go to school? In France or abroad?

Lwenn : I was in France until about the master’s degree and then I went to Amsterdam on Erasmus and I never came back. The European exchange programmes are working. yes, that’s what we’re going to say.

What is NLnet?

Walid : So we’re talking about NLnet. Can you, first of all, tell us about the history of NLnet?

Lwenn : So the part that’s going to be interesting for the people who are listening to you, NLnet, is a foundation, a non-governmental organization recognized as being of public interest.

What we do, in fact, is that we obtain funds that are European funds, also some private funds from donors, such as a charity, and then we redistribute them to open and free software development projects. We generally give funding that is for short periods, about a year of development, which is small funding on the scale of European funding since our grants are between 5000 and 50000 euros for the first projects, with the possibility of extending over several projects. And our mission is to promote a free and decentralized Internet where users are in control of their tools.

And in fact, a lot of the projects we fund are not very sexy projects. These are projects that are fundamental building blocks, that build the Internet as we know it. It’s going to be network protocols, it’s going to be network tools that are deployed, it’s also going to be data storage solutions. So in fact, this whole Internet infrastructure that we know very well comes from free software and that it is based on an often invisible, often unpaid work of volunteers and enthusiasts. We are trying to divert some European funds, with the informed consent of course from the NGI Zero programme, to people who will actually build sustainable solutions for the Internet.

And historically, NLnet starts in the ’80s or ’90s. For the record, it actually started when UNIX enthusiasts came back from the United States in ’82 and created EUNIX, then actually decided to use EUNIX to make networking, creating EUNET (European Unix Network), which bootstrapped the European Internet.

And NLnet was officially founded in ’89 and has activities that are both charitable and commercial. And what happens is that in ’97, NLnet makes an exchange of shares with the people of UUnet in the United States, which will become Verizon. And this exchange of shares for a lot of money, at the time, a few million, created NLnet’s first charitable fund, which would then focus on its fundraising missions.

Michiel : NLnet started from a Unix User Group, (which still exists). This is an association, NLnet was created to professionalize the work done within CWI/NIKHEF and NLUUG.

I know you have a lot of questions about European funding, but what you need to know is that we get a lot of funding from the European Commission. European Commission through the NGI Zero program, but we also benefit from private funding, inheritances or people who trust us with more or less a lot of money and donors. So it’s the same, if there are people who are listening and who want to finance European free software, we can talk about the work we do and if they are interested.

Walid : But NLnet, so at the beginning NLnet is an internet service provider, so at some point NLnet is bought by U-Net which will become Verizon?

Lwenn: in fact NLnet is the sister of EUnet or Verizon, it is first of all an association of unique enthusiasts that begins to create the European Internet, in fact in a cooperative associative model and which becomes a commercial provider when in fact we start to take into account the commercial applications of the Internet in the 90s.

And in fact, like these free software enthusiasts, people like Teus Hagen or Jaap Akkerhuis are in the Internet Hall of Fame. In fact, they are also passionate about free software. So in fact, there’s NLnet, it starts as an access provider where all the funds that are not operative funds are paid back to free software through a donation process.

Walid : Oh okay.

Lwenn : Actually, right from the start, there’s this cooperative aspect.

Michiel : To learn more about the history of NLnet and the other organs, see for the history of NLnet and other organizations: It’s not very comprehensive but it’s a good context regarding the names. It would be great to have a page in French at some point, maybe we can have some Wikipedians to volunteer 🙂

The legal form of NLnet

Walid : NLnet, what is its legal form now? Is it a foundation under Dutch law? That was the case from the get-go or it’s something, you know that, if it’s…

Lwenn : That was the case from the beginning because in the Netherlands you can have a foundation that is for profit. So you can incorporate your company as a foundation. And in fact, in general, for small companies that have just started, such as Startups or SMEs (Editor’s note: small and medium enterprises), it is relatively interesting as a financial profile in terms of taxes, etc.

I’m not an expert on corporate rights, but it seems to me that in fact the term foundation doesn’t necessarily refer to NGOs, it can also be foundations that have a profit purpose. But in fact, in ’97, it definitively became a foundation recognized as being of public interest, not profit, whose mission is to support the development of an open and free internet.

Walid : Do you know if the original founders are still there?

Lwenn : No, they let us have control over the operation, but it’s true that we still discuss with them and we keep, in fact we keep very good ones, that’s something we talked about a little later, we tend to keep very good relations with our former members but also our old projects. So when you ask questions about our community, sorry for the spoilers, in fact we’ll often put in touch projects that we think have something to say to each other because we founded one of the projects and we can say “Hey, this new project that’s coming up, that’s very close to what you’re doing, Maybe you’re interested in talking to them.” And that’s something we do a lot.

The NLnet Team

Walid : How many people are you now?

Lwenn : Well, there are 9 of us, but apparently we’ve just hired 2 other people who are starting next week. It is a very small organization. From an outsider’s point of view, when I discovered NLnet, it was pretty crazy the impact, the number of projects and the amount of funding that was managing to circulate when I found out that it was…

So before my colleague and I, who were recruited in January, arrived, it was 6 people and I was flabbergasted to learn that.

Walid : When you told me that at FOSDEM, I wondered how it was possible.

Lwenn : You see the booth at FOSDEM, there were less than 10 people, you met all NLnet.

NLNet’s place in European free software

Walid : yes, that’s right. Then we started talking a little bit about the European Commission. One of the things also to introduce NLnet, how do you position yourself in the free software ecosystem in Europe?

Lwenn : Well, that’s a bit of a broad question. I think there are actually two sides to this question. We work with different partners.

We are part of a network of partners. And that’s something we rely on a lot because our partners, so the training NixOS, and our partners Radically Open Security, which is a company that does security audits, and whose net profits are donated to other associations, in this case to us, to free software, so as a donation. And in fact, these partners that we work with, also APELL, they will help us when we work with projects to be able to direct our projects to experts on different aspects. Nixos, they are very good at packaging. And in fact, packaging for Nix, it allows you to have what you develop that can run in any distribution. So it’s still super interesting and fast.

Working with a security audit, especially with what’s happening in the European political climate, the Cyber Resilience Act, is something that we ask of all our projects because you put your code all over the Internet, free access, open source. It’s still so nice when you have your funding to also be able to work with someone who will just read your code and check all your vulnerabilities to make sure that everything you do is good from a security point of view. We work with a university that helps us a lot, because they are passionate about accessibility. So in fact, each of our projects, they evaluate them in terms of accessibility, they do an audit to be able to help them improve their accessibility because the Internet should be for everyone.

Walid : Whether it’s security audits or accessibility, I’m thinking for example of security audits, it’s something that is complicated, that is expensive for an open source project, that in general we don’t necessarily do, because we don’t have the skills or we don’t know the people or it will cost us money or we don’t have the time.

Lwenn : That’s why when we select a project, the security audit and the accessibility audit if there is a user-facing interface are necessary. It’s part of the clauses that go with our donations, which is that there will be a security audit at some point. And I think it’s fantastic for the projects that work with us to have that opportunity. Because yes it’s expensive, it’s annoying to organize and also it’s hard to actually find experts in what you’re doing very specifically to take a look at your code. Because a database expert is not the same as a network system expert in terms of security.

Walid : The question I was also asking myself was if there were entities elsewhere, in Europe and then elsewhere in the world, that resembled NLnet? Do you know any of you at NLnet?

Lwenn : In European free software, there is no real equivalent, but people who have similar missions, yes. The Sovereign Tech Fund, which is better known than we are, also has much larger funding. So it’s going to be for bigger projects, I think it’s going up to half a million or a million. It’s much more important and they still have a slightly higher barrier to entry in terms of what type of project can be selected and the administration that needs to be done by the projects upstream of the selection process.

Michiel: Our budget is as big as theirs, and I think potentially bigger. They are certainly not larger: they have funded less than 20 projects since the beginning of their existence, i.e. less than 3 years.

Walid : Excuse me, Sovereign Tech Fund, who is behind this fund?

Lwenn : They’re very nice people, but they’re a little bit more, they work a little bit more with investments, I think, they have some private investments, and they also have some investments, ah, they’re supported by the German government.

Walid : Oh okay. yes, it’s German. Ok, and you’re talking?

Lwenn : Sometimes. We have some projects, in fact, that, after working with us, will work with the Sovereign Tech Fund because a grant of 50,000 euros for one year is a good springboard to then apply for other funding. And the other people I wanted to tell you about was the Prototype Fund in Germany as well, which is actually going to shortlist candidates before presenting them to the German government. But there is a difference, and that is that the Prototype Fund has to be incorporated as a company in Germany before receiving funding from the German government.

I think what makes NLnet unique, actually, is the speed of the process. Because, then, the people I had a call with this morning, who were accepted, were people who submitted their applications in December, before December 1. So, it’s been 4 months. It’s the speed of the end-to-end process, because then we’re going to start signing.

We work a lot with individual people, which makes us relatively unique, because in fact there is no administrative structure needed to apply. You can apply like no one else, you, Walid, you can write a project proposal tomorrow. You can apply with your company, or you can apply as a member of a collective or organization or a university.

Walid : It’s something quite unique that I, as an individual, can apply for funds that I don’t need to have a…

Lwenn : an incorporation.

That’s it, yes, that’s really… You don’t even have to be of legal age. And you don’t necessarily need to reveal a real name either. We just need a real name and an address to send the funds, but in terms of keeping your privacy, your anonymity, we can. Working with a minor with the consent of their parents is fine. I think it’s this openness that makes us different.

Walid : Last question on this, do the candidates have to be European? Do they have to live in Europe? Can they be somewhere else?

Lwenn : Projects must have a European dimension. European dimension can mean that one of the project’s collaborators lives in Europe. It may mean that one of the people who is developing is in Europe. This may mean that the project is done for the benefit of an organization in Europe. We want projects that have a European dimension, that have an impact in Europe. So we’re paying attention to that. But on the other hand, it’s something with which we have some flexibility on what it means to be European, because a lot of projects on Internet infrastructure are going to benefit European users.

The Story of Next Generation Internet

Walid : Next part. So there, you mentioned it a little bit at the beginning, but you talked about NGI0. Now, what I’d like is for you to be able to tell us more about what Next Generation Internet is. I’m interested in it because I don’t think I know the whole story myself. I’d love to tell a little bit of the story of what it is and how you came to work together.

Lwenn : In 2016, the European Commission is very sad about the results of its previous programme to develop the European Internet. It was Future Internet or something like that. She thinks that before creating this new programme, Next Generation Internet, and continuing to inject money into internet developments, which are a strategic place and a place of impact for the European Commission, they will organise a workshop with experts. The contact between NLnet and NGI was a bit of a coincidence because Tim Berners-Lee was invited to this workshop, he cancelled at the last minute. Michiel Leenaars, who is at NLnet, is invited instead and he will then work with Gartner on the open source community. It gives them a report, a study on how open source is revolutionizing the Internet and is a strategic and crucial place for which funding must be made.

And so, after this report, the European Commission decides that one of the themes that will have to be carried out by NGI is going to be NGI Zero, which is to promote open source, it’s still dynamic, it’s creative, it’s a place of exchange and it’s crucial to boost European open source for the entire internet infrastructure. NGI is not only NGI Zero, there are several themes that are carried by NGI. We work with NGI Zero, which are the open source funds, and there are also other funds to strengthen European technologies.

NGI Zero is the fund we work with, which has been allocated to us. The European Commission also decided to work differently from the way they worked with Future Internet, which is to contact foundations like ours, which are used to working with projects, to have projects submitted to them, to allow us to allocate the funds.

Walid : It’s a big change of strategy on their part in the end.

Lwenn : yes.

Walid : In fact, by delegating all the call for projects, follow-up, financing, etc., they just become the funders. They provide the funds, you know. Are they doing more than just providing the funds?

Lwenn : Yes. All projects that are funded by NLnet are evaluated by an external committee. So after we’ve done all our work upstream of research and evaluation, we’ve discussed with the projects to refine their application, we’re going to discuss a little more about how we work with our projects, there’s going to be an external committee that is validated by the European Commission, which will, In fact, to make sure that we are not doing absolutely anything with their funds. We have a very trusting relationship with the people at NGI, we interact with them regularly and we report back to them. What we’re doing is we’re also taking all the administrative work out of the projects so that they don’t need to do these reports and audits. We are the ones who take responsibility.

Walid : And these funds on NGI Zero, they necessarily go through NLnet or there are also other organizations that are also able to distribute funds, to finance projects through these funds?

Lwenn : So on NGI, there are other organs. In fact, NGI has several funds and each fund, I believe, is allocated to a specific organization or between different organizations, but NGI Zero does go through us.

Walid : Okay, so we started talking about it earlier, really about the funding that is done by NLnet. So what you were saying is that we have both funds that come from NGI0 and both funds that come from our own funds, that is to say donations. Are these the two ways you can invest in projects?

Lwenn : We regularly lobby people who we know have money to give to European open source to try to convince them to give us a raise.

So recently we also obtained the NGI Zero Commons funds, which is a new European fund for the digital commons. We had discussed it at FOSDEM, you were very enthusiastic about it. It’s a very intense moment for us because in fact with this fund we have almost as much, we have twice as much money as we have had since the beginning of NLnet, in total. Because now we have 21 million, something like that, for the digital commons. That’s wonderful. It’s also a lot of responsibility and it’s quite terrifying.

So yes, we have European funding, we also have donations, donations from individuals, small donations, a few euros a month, large donations.

One of our funds is a research fund, which is in fact a fund named by a person who, when he died, he and his sister decided to bequeath, I think it is half a million, to open access research on Internet topics. And so that’s a research fund which is a separate fund that we work with. We also have the equity that comes from the historic sale of NLnet. We have different sources of funding that are not only European funding, but it’s true that NGI Zero is still a program that we benefit from a lot and we can do a lot of very, very cool things with it, so it’s still wonderful.

What NLnet invests in

Walid : Now what I’d like to know is, you started talking about it a little bit earlier, is that what are you investing in? You talked about core technologies, so really the core technologies of the Internet, and actually, what I wanted to know was, are we talking about hardware, are we talking about software? So there you have it, what types of technologies are you investing in?

Lwenn: So, the European funds, NGI Zeo, have stricter rules than the NLnet funds. European funds are necessarily spent on research and development. Unfortunately, we can’t fund maintenance. So, it’s always research and development efforts. Server costs are not something we can do with our projects.

It’s sad, but it’s still innovation. And through these R&D funds, so it’s still open source, and it’s software development, also hardware development. We are trying to identify the technologies that are necessary for the functioning of the Internet as we know it, the technologies that make the Internet a more decentralized, more diverse, more accessible place, which also allow users to have more control over their machines, over their use of the Internet. In the same way, we finance hardware projects, open source hardware projects. We’d like to fund more. It’s often difficult to do material projects with the budgets we have because, well, you need money. Developing motherboards is expensive.

It’s very expensive. But when you have the opportunity to work with someone who is doing an open hardware project. We like it a lot. The types of technologies depend on the type of technology. I can’t name a type of thing that’s going to be our goal.

It’s so varied. We’re trying to focus on what’s going to impact the Internet for the better. What we like is when developments can be reused among several projects. We love people who make libraries, which can be used across multiple codebases.

It depends so much on how people use the Internet, too. Yes, network protocols are fundamental, but we are in the 21st century, social networks have also become a fundamental aspect of the Internet for many people. We started working very recently with a fund opened by Mobifree to be able to free up smartphones because now it’s fundamental.

Walid : We talked to Gaël Duval when I interviewed him about Murena and /e/OS and all that.

Lwenn : yes. In fact, that’s the beauty of that and that’s also why there are so few of us and why we have so much work, is that, in fact, each project, we have to see in relation to this vision, this vision of the Internet and try to calculate, wait, that’s very nice in terms of research, are people going to use it? It’s reusable, it’s solid, but will it still be there in three years? Will it still be important to have this solution in three years’ time? So as much as possible, we try to push for stacks.

So we’re trying to push for stacks that are open source as much as possible. Sometimes it can make sense because there are proprietary stacks, to have solutions to interact with proprietary stacks, like for now, because you have to be pragmatic.

How to do monitoring?

Walid : The next question that leads me is, given the number of projects you have, you must be super busy, how do you have time to do monitoring actually?

Lwenn : So that’s something I’m going to say several times through this podcast, is that we can’t do anything for candidates if they don’t apply. Why do I say that at this point? Because in fact, we learn so much from the projects we’re already working with, that tell us “Hey!” So I’m working on this thing, but actually there’s this new thing that looks like it’s getting super important right now right now, and just gave us a hell of a boost, because, oh well, that’s a topic that’s here. So yes, it’s true that we always need to be a little bit attentive or on standby, that’s also why we actually have calls for applications with very short and very regular temporalities, which are two months between each call for applications, like the people who are going to listen to this podcast.

Our next deadline for a call for applications will be June 1st. We’d love to receive applications, but if you miss it, there will be another deadline, either in August or October, depending on how overwhelmed we are.

So the fact that we have very short time frames also allows us to see where the people we work are at.

Walid : when I heard about it the first time, with the people I interviewed, and the discussions we had a little off-screen, the first thing I said to myself was “Ah, if we had had this in the 2000s”, about our projects, which ended up changing our economic model, because we couldn’t get financed, I said to myself, “Ah, there are certainly projects that could have continued to keep a community model,” for example, but at the time, there was no such funding.

Lwenn : That’s what we’re also trying to do, precisely, we’re also trying to advise the people who work, the people we fund and who work with us. We are also trying to see what their options are in terms of sustainability and in terms of business models. One of our partners, APELL, is the association… I can’t remember their names. Essentially, it’s pros at every possible free and open source software business model to try and see what makes sense for different projects.

So, that’s something that we care about a lot, which is also sustainability and how people can make a living doing open source.

What types of business models should be financed?

Walid : There are economic models that you don’t finance, I’m thinking for example typically of open core models or certain models for which there is some risk that one day the project will close? (Editor’s note: see the introductory episode on the economic models and governance of free software)

Lwenn : All the projects we fund must be under a license recognized by the OSI as an open source license. It’s going to be LPG, it’s going to be AGPL, it’s going to be MIT, essentially. So we already have this big constraint that these are licenses that are clearly open source. When we fund research, we don’t necessarily accept dual licensing models. Then, if it can happen that we work with someone who will have a proprietary solution, but also an open source solution that is entirely open source, self-standing and that integrates well with other things. That’s not a concern for us at all. But it’s important that our R&D funds are clearly open source and that it’s something that fits into open source stacks.

Walid : I meant typically projects where we’re going to say, well, here you have the version, it’s free, it’s open source, and then to have the additional features, you need the version, which is not open source, you know. And now you have to pay 50 euros a month, you see. Are you able to finance this type of business model or not?

Lwenn : I’m going to go back a little bit, if you’ll let me. In a very down-to-earth way, the way our funding works is not salaries, it’s donations. It’s donations on things that people have developed. So in fact, we don’t give money in advance. We give when we receive, well, when this person has developed the code, we have made an agreement that there will be a donation because we appreciate what this person is doing on the Internet. And these donations are conditional on everything that is done being open source. If someone has a business model that is open core, but the project they are applying for us with is to add features to the core (Editor’s note: core of the software), effectively, and to the completely open source, completely free version. Why not? If it makes sense, why not? We don’t have any preconceived notions about choices and economic models, but we do have these restrictions, which are that all these donations are conditional on the fact that the technologies developed are open source.

Applying and being selected: what does it involve?

Walid : The next part is how do you apply, how do you select all of this? Can you explain to me a little bit, I’m going to say a standard flow but a flow, how it works to get funded from the moment you make a call for applications to the moment you donate the funds?

Lwenn : I’m going to give you the version for the candidates, which is relatively simple, and I’m going to give you the version for us, which is relatively more difficult.

Walid : Yes, I’m very interested in yours, yours.

Lwenn : So, I think you’ve seen on our website, there are the different funds with “Do you have a project?”, “Submit your project”. And I don’t know if you opened the form out of curiosity. Our form is very simple. For a candidate, it’s about maybe half an hour of work. The reason we’re trying to have this form so simple is because it allows people to tell us what they think is important about their project. And what’s important for them, well for them, is to present their project, not necessarily with big explanations about how it’s going to revolutionize the technological stage, but just to focus on “I need money to do this, this, this and this, do you like it?”

So we’re really trying to simplify the application process. That’s going to be the application stage. Applications are held every two months. Then there is a waiting period while the applications are evaluated. And there are two rounds of selection. The first cycle is a pre-selection, or, finally, it’s a first selection where you decide which projects you want to ask more questions with or try to see if there might be something, versus which projects you think that, as cool as they are, maybe it’s not the right fit (Editor’s note: it doesn’t fit). So after a few weeks for the first cycle, we try to keep it under four weeks, but it’s difficult. yes, actually I shouldn’t say that because I’m already, we’re already late for April. We try to keep it under eight weeks, but it’s a bit difficult to be able to contact the projects that we’ve decided to discuss a little more with them versus the projects that we think are not necessarily a certain market for us. After this first round of selection, we will then have individual discussions with the projects, so they will receive one or two weeks after the announcement of the first selection additional questions to give details, explain to us a little more their vision, give us the technical details, give us a budget, etc.

And then we’re going to review all these answers, evaluate and try to decide which projects we think are viable and which we’re going to select. And then, when we have selected the projects after this second cycle, we will then send them to an external committee which will, as we said, check this list of different projects that we have noted and that we have pre-reviewed. And after that, when we have the final decision from the external committee, we can start. We can welcome projects and start working with them.

Internally, it’s a less straightforward procedure. For the April background, on our work dashboard, we receive 400 applications that come in and we will evaluate, so we will read each of these applications and evaluate them according to three criteria, technical excellence, impact and strategic potential and value for money or impact for money. So, there are these scoring tools, but it’s still very clinical and it’s not enough to represent the complexity of the projects. So, each time, we’re going to have to do additional research, go visit the different project sites, try to understand, okay, that’s your place in the ecosystem, that’s who you’re working with, that’s your stack, what are your relationships with the other projects that you’re part of, if you want to doActivityPub, what are your relationships with other ActivityPub projects, etc. So we’re actually going to take a look at all of this, formulate some preliminary questions as we decide on this first round of selection. So, as you can imagine, there are four of us, in parallel we are always discussing with our projects that are being worked on and founded. It’s a lot, but that’s it, it’s a bit like the pre-selection criteria and then afterwards, when we’ve decided which project passes this first stage of selection, by consensus, we’re going to ask them additional questions. Maybe it’s going to be something like, well, we’re thrilled with your impact, but we have some questions about why are you using this library instead of this bookstore. So it can be very technical questions, or it can be questions that are a little broader scope, like that’s just what we’re missing to make a final decision. How you see the impact of your project, or how you have organized your budget, or what are your research stages on this project, etc. That’s it, these are going to be the types of questions we’re going to ask, but they’re really discussion questions, to try to get additional information to make our decision.

After these questions, or this dialogue sometimes, since sometimes there can be moments when the projects start to be modified a little bit with these questions, like typically what I told you that we can’t finance maintenance but on the other hand that we can finance research we will discuss with some projects “hey I see that you have maintenance server costs it’s not going to work But I’m very interested in this aspect of your research, maybe a little less” so it can also be a negotiation stage where we can refine the project so that it has the best possible impact and the best possible financial aspect. After this stage of dialogue, we make this final selection, we send it to the external review committee and we can send the good news afterwards. So it’s a relatively quick process and very little administrative and very little headache for candidates. And in fact, our role, our mission, is to take on as many administrative headaches as possible for the projects we fund.

Walid : We talked about it a little bit earlier, but in the discussion, you look at the economic sustainability of the project? No, it’s more like that, it’s more about things that we discuss afterwards, in general, when we’re working with projects specifically. What I was telling you is that, in fact, anyone can apply. It can be individuals, it can be cooperatives, it can be researchers, it can be academic researchers, it can be companies. And that’s not something we discriminate on at all.

To obtain European subsidies because it is a project that is necessary and laudable and will never have a relevant economic model, because capitalism is an economic model. And it’s a social economic model that we value a lot. That’s our mission, if you will.

So it’s not… In fact, it’s something that we can advise some projects on that want to have leads to have a business model, but it’s not necessarily something that is a deal-breaker for us.

We’re happy if something needs to have a business model behind it to be able to continue. We are happy if this person can continue to support themselves. There you go.

Walid : While people are realizing what they said they were going to achieve, do you have regular exchanges with them?

Lwenn : Yes.

Walid : Well, I don’t know, it’s points? How does it actually work?

Lwenn : That’s also kind of the magic of this organization, it’s that the projects we work with are very autonomous. We don’t make points, we don’t make reports. What we have is that when we have selected a project, we will then set up a memorandum, so an informal guarantee that this person will receive charitable donations for his work towards a free internet. But this person sends us with this memorandum, we have a project plan with a description of the different tasks that this person has planned to do and we say yes it seems to us to be a task that is commendable and important and when you have done it we will give you 4000 euros. And then the projects send us payment requests. When they’ve done their job, they send us a link to their repository or to the doc or whatever, just to say, “Hey, I did what I said I was going to do, we’ll check and send the money.”

Walid : What does “you check” mean? That is, do you check that it has been done or do you check…?

Lwenn : Well, yes, we check that it’s been done, we check that it compiles.

Walid : yes, that’s right, okay, okay. You take the code, you take it…

Lwenn : We run it, if it’s packaging, we run it, if it’s a hardware blueprint, it’s a little more complicated, but we try to see if we can build.

Walid : Does all this take time?

Lwenn : Yes, yes, indeed. However, people do not report to us. We don’t ask for 12-page technical reports, “ah, I planned to do this for this reason, I decided to do that”. It’s really that simple, for the project you’re working with, it’s as simple as saying, “I said I was going to develop a bookstore, here are the bookstores.”

Walid : It’s great, it reduces the contribution and funding to something extremely simple for people. That’s really…

Lwenn : Actually, if you like, our starting point is that there are a lot of people who are absolutely brilliant in technical development and all these project management processes or financing organization, it’s hell.

And all the social processes where you have to talk to people, do reporting, etc. It’s an unspeakable ordeal. And so, what we’re trying to do is simplify the process as much as possible so that a lot more people can get funding for the free software that they’re developing by reducing the burden on those people. That’s also why the question you ask me about business models, what we want to do is to allow people to be able to develop the free software they want to develop without having to worry about how to sell it to venture capital (Editor’s note: venture capitalists, VC) or to set up a company on it.

The community around NLnet

Walid : The next topic I wanted to ask you about, I called it the community around NLnet, that is to say there are many projects that have been funded by NLnet, there are always more. Do you NLnet run a community? Do you only connect projects? So, I don’t know, do you have webinars? Do you have any events? Finally, what do you have to make people interact with each other in this community?

Lwenn : Do we run a community? No. It’s a choice, and it’s a deliberate choice. Because we think that the Internet should be decentralized, because we think that projects should interact in their own community for them and not in an artificial community of having received money from the same source. For us, it doesn’t make sense to do cohorts or promotions for people who have very different jobs. On the other hand, we love to create direct connections whenever we can. If a new project, we think it might be interesting to put them in contact with previous projects with whom we have worked, we will put them in contact directly. We do have a Speaker Bureau that allows you to contact us or ask if you would have someone to propose to speak at an event, to speak. We organize webinars that allow some of our projects, when they have resulted in our Success Story, to present their work and we have a network of partners, which I have touched a little about, who offer help and support to our projects.

And so we’re thrilled when we see projects that help each other, or that start working together, but we have a deliberate choice not to create our own community, forum, IRC, and then also that’s it, as you can imagine…

Walid : You don’t have time.

Lwenn : yes.

How does NLnet advertise itself?

Walid : That’s it, anyway. Well, yes. My next question, which is quite related to the one I just asked you, is how do you actually advertise? How do you get people to know each other?

Lwenn : Well, you! Our projects are our best advertising. We ask the projects we fund to recognize us in terms of funding because it’s nice, on their website or on their repo, a bit like they want. And it’s always really nice when we have new projects or new people reaching out to us and saying, “Hey, I heard about you from this or that other open source project that I’m involved with and I wanted to apply.” So our projects are our best publicity. It’s a bit like Mastodon, ActivityPub, but it’s true that we really like to keep things very technical and we like this word of mouth and we like the fact that we don’t need to do ads on Facebook, Google, Mastodon and we prefer on the contrary that it be recommended by your friends: “hey, your software project, I know you’ve been looking for funding for three years, maybe you should be able to apply for NLnet.” That warms our hearts when it happens.

Walid : Can you give a few examples, what I called success stories, of projects that have really developed through NLnet funding?

Lwenn : On the one hand, we like projects that become big and have a lot of development, but for us, every person who for a year or two has developed free and open source software with the funding they needed to be able to continue working on their passion, it’s a success story. But in terms of impact, we’ve done a lot of work with ActivityPub. I think you have this podcast on Castopod.

Walid : Absolutely, ActivityPub being my favorite topics on the podcast.

Lwenn : but we’ve also worked with Peertube and Mobilizon, WireGuard that are excellent in terms of safety, CryptPad that allow us to make… on which we exchanged for the plot of this episode, who make end-to-end encrypted collaborative documents, either on their server or self-hosted. Jitsi also, since we are in France, it is still interesting to mention. That’s some interesting examples, but it’s true that if you go to our site, we have more than 400 projects. There’s some very high-level stuff, social media. There’s some very low-level stuff, bootloader . And for very, very low level of internet architecture, we have just “on-boarded” a project to create autonomous batteries. Finally, to create open-source standalone battery development kits. There you go. We’re really at all levels of the internet stack, from energy to social media.

How does it feel to do this work?

Walid : I’d like to ask you a question that I didn’t write down in it but it’s interesting. How does it matter to you, personally, to fund these projects, these people who, with that money, will develop things that they might not have been able to develop otherwise? What does it do to you, really?

Lwenn : It’s incredible. Frankly, it’s incredible. I told you at the beginning that I came from a research background in philosophy, so it was quite a radical change, but something that’s wonderful and something that I really enjoy about my work is that I can exchange and learn from experts all the time. It’s really like being born a sniper every day, on a lot of different subjects. And it’s amazing to be able to work with so many people who are absolutely brilliant and help them achieve things that are useful for society. There you go.

Walid : Really, again, I’m thinking, if we’d had that in the 2000s, there’s a lot of stuff, it would have been great. So, it’s really great that it exists.

Lwenn : There was NLnet in the 2000s, but it was still very small, actually.

Challenges ahead for NLnet

Walid : Well, yes, we didn’t know you.

Last part, this is what I call the future. What I’d like to know a little bit is what are your challenges, what do you have in the future, what do you know you’re going to have to work on?

Lwenn : our big challenge at the moment is to grow, not really to expand but at least to speed up our processes to be able to maintain the level of attention that we pay to each of the projects that apply individually because as you see the evaluation process that I described to you it is still very very personalized and therefore succeed in having more capacities and or more speed while keeping this level of attention, It’s going to be a big challenge for us as a foundation and a bit of an ongoing challenge. We also talked about the NGI Zero Commons fund, which is very, very exciting and one of the largest funds we’ve ever worked with. The largest fund we’ve ever worked with. It’s going to take a lot of effort to find new talent and new people to work with and fund projects. And in fact, more generally, the things that we keep on the radar are more challenges for European free software in general. It is the Cyber Resilience Act that will affect European book developers a lot.

The Digital Market Act , which is very, very positive news that will really change the European free software ecosystem. So these are things that are exciting but are also quite scary to find the time, the energy to succeed in meeting them.


Walid : From what I understand from what you’re saying, we’re coming to the end of this interview. In closing, I would like to ask you a few questions.

The first question is “what would you say to a free software project owner who doesn’t know NLnet?”

Lwenn : In a few words. We’re giving money to European free software, come and apply.

Walid : All right. What would you say to a project leader who has already benefited from NLnet funding?

Lwenn : It was a pleasure to work with you. Applying for your first NLnet project doesn’t mean you can’t reapply. We’d love to see where you’re at and we’re always happy to see you at FOSDEM or elsewhere.

Walid : By the way, before I give you an open forum, I didn’t ask the question, but FOSDEM is a very important event for the whole free software ecosystem. Are there any other events you go to?

Lwenn : Yes, depending on our individual desires as different NLnet people, we have our own affections and networks and we are usually also present at the Chaos Computer Conference in winter.

Walid : Okay, and listen, we’re coming to the end of the interview, it’s the open forum. So the op-ed is, I’ll let you speak to get a message across, the message you want to convey to the listeners of Projets Libres!, and to all the people who might come across this episode.

Lwenn : to all listeners who are passionate about Projets Libres! and free software, if there are projects that you know, that are looking for funding, try to point them in our direction, because we love to receive new applications, see new faces, and also we try to help whenever we can.

Walid : That’s a very interesting conclusion. I myself talk about it very regularly around me, telling people, you should really apply. And by the way, Benjamin Bellamy from Castopod said that it was the people at Xwiki who helped him fill out the NLnet form and that’s how Castopod was born in the end.

Lwenn : Oh yes, something for the projects that have already worked with us, help your buddies, help the other projects you know that are in financial difficulties – everyone is in financial difficulty in free software – but help them to apply. Show them that it’s simple, tell them about your experience, the good and the bad and try to encourage them because you are the one who allows us to see new projects, new faces and discover talents. Typically what the XWiki people did in helping Benjamin de Castopod, we need that because we can’t do all that. Unfortunately, we don’t have time.

Walid : Well listen Lwenn, already you’re delighted to meet you at FOSDEM because I arrived at the NLnet booth, I asked if by chance someone would be French-speaking, I thought the answer was going to be no. I was told “oh but if you have to come back tomorrow, you have to meet Lwenn”, so I was super happy. Then I contacted you again and you said yes great it’s great we’re going to be able to do an episode, so I was super happy. It’s a subject that’s really close to my heart, really happy that we were able to make this recording, so thank you very much for that. I hope that we will have the opportunity to talk about NLnet again in the coming months or years on the podcast Projets Libres!. And then for the listeners, you understand, we have to get this episode to work with people who make free software, so I’m counting on you, that’s your mission. See you soon, thank you very much and have a good evening, see you next time Lwenn.

Lwenn : Thank you very much, it’s been a real pleasure to chat with you.

This episode was recorded on April 24, 2024.


This podcast is published under the dual license Art Libre 1.3 or later – CC BY-SA 2.0 or later.

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