Quadrature du Net

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Case Study

Source: Paper: Leetocracy. Networked Political Activism or the Continuation of Elitism in Competitive Democracy. YANA BREINDL & NILS GUSTAFSSON. Chapter Nine of: New Intersections of Internet Research


“QdN is emblematic of networked, transnational, internet-based activism in a domain that heavily relies on ICTs.

QdN is a hybrid organisation (Chadwick, 2006), mixing the action repertoires traditionally associated with social movements and interest groups: protest actions (such as an internet blackout), but also participating in conferences, discussing with MEPs, and providing analyses.QdN is part of an international network of digital rights advocates. Their aim is to prevent what they consider repressive copyright legislations such as the “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” scheme that plans to cut off copyright infringers’ internet connection after two unsuccessful warnings.

Amendement 138 to the Telecoms Package was introduced as a warrant against such a scheme, as it would make a prior judicial ruling compulsory, complicating the three-strikes mechanism. Three-strikes is only the latest in a series of events generally referred to as the “copyright wars” in which the entertainment industry uses any possible venue in order to counter copyright infringements, including lobbying, litigation, education, and licensing (Yu, 2004).

Internet-based networks such as QdN have been instrumental in raising public attention towards copyright issues (Breindl & Briatte, 2009), and are typical of a larger trend of new communities that have emerged with the rapid expansion of the internet since the early 1990s and are gaining in importance, notably by influencing traditional decision-making. On their internet site, they define their activities as advocacy “for the adaptation of French and European legislations to respect the founding principles of the Internet, most notably the free circulation of knowledge,” and intervening in “public-policy debates concerning, for instance, freedom of speech, copyright, regulation of telecommunications and online privacy.” More generally, their actions aim to encourage citizen participation and debate on “rights and freedoms in the digital age.”

Most core activists can to some extent be linked to the free/libre and open source software movement (FLOSS), either as programmers, free or open source software company owners or users. For these activists, the advent of computers and the internet is a revolution that fundementally alters the current power balance, moving from an industrial society to an information society. They are inspired by what Castells has termed as the “culture of the internet” (2001, pp. 36–63), based on the techno-meritocratic values built in the open architecture of the internet by its early innovators; enacted by hackers promoting principles of sharing, openness, decentralization, free access to computers and information, and the belief that computers can change the world for the better (Levy, 1984); and embedded in virtual communitarian networks and the entrepreneurial culture that contributes to “an ideology of freedom that is widespread on the Internet world” (Castells 2001, p.37; see also Flichy, 2001; Rasmussen, 2007). At present, a much broader digital rights movement constitutes itself, as exemplified by QdN’s promotion of openness, sharing, and free access.

The frames articulated by digital rights activists are notable for their trans-political appeal, resisting traditional right/left cleavages. QdN succeeded rather well in playing on antagonisms within the two big European political formations, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the EP (S&D), leading to affinities between members of different parties and a crucial role for small parties to act as intermediaries. This is, however, not unusual in European politics, characterised by shifting majorities depending on the issues at stake. From QdN’s perspective, governments and corporations frequently do not understand the emancipatory potential of internet technologies and try to regulate them in order to control them more effectively. In a European Parliament largely dominated by the conservative EPP, their sole chance of success is to sensitize MEPs across the political spectrum.

The way they work reveals a strong tendency to adopt an “engineering philosophy to make things work” and an “insistence on adopting a technocratic approach to solving societal problems and to bypassing (hacking) legislative approaches” (Berry 2008, p.102).

If there are “harmful” amendments within a French legislative proposal or even within a set of five European directives, everything needs to be done to “patch” these, as one activist explains:

- Basically, what you had in this kind of community is a certain pragmatic approach towards implementing stuff, by doing stuff and problem solving. So you have a problem, try to get a fix for it, try to get a solution. You’re not so much interested as other political communities in socializing or in feeling good among us and sticking together as a community. So this doesn’t really matter. We want to achieve our objective. Yeah. It’s very focused. (…) Actually, politics is also a technocratic system and in the same way you program computers, you somehow try to fix the political regulatory framework. (Interview 1, Brussels, February 2008).

QdN can be best described as functioning in four concentric circles, as introduced previously in the discussion on temporal elites.At its core are five founders, four of whom are computer scientists, empathetic to the FLOSS movement, and the fifth previously a parliamentary assistant in the French national assembly before rallying to the digital rights cause. One core campaigner and a half-time assistant are paid with funds provided by the Open Society Institute (OSI). Founded by the Hungarian-American businessman and philantropist George Soros, OIS is a private foundation offering grants for the promotion of democratic governance and the safeguard of fundamental rights.The second circle is composed of voluntary contributors who are generally part of la Quadrature du Net’s discussion list and follow the Internet Relay Chats (IRC), not only actively engaging in the discussion but also analysing legislative texts, checking press releases, editing the campaign wiki, spreading the word online, and creating new tools. A third circle is composed of occasional contributors, people who follow closely what la Quadrature du Net does, performing tasks such as translating documents or the content of the website, cleaning up the wiki or helping out with reviewing the press coverage of their activities. Finally, a fourth circle of supporters gather so-called “lurkers,” people who read and follow what la Quadrature du Net does, maybe engaging in their mobilisational campaigns through calling an MEP or participating in the internet blackout, but without actively contributing to the organisation of the campaign itself. Most (but not all) core campaigners and supporters spoken to are male, holding a university degree, aged between 20 and 35 and live in urban areas. The boundaries between these circles are far from impermeable. Even core activists can put their activities on hold for a certain period of time and become occasional contributors, just as lurkers can decide to join the IRC discussions and move closer to the core of the group. These dynamics are oberservable within online groups in general. Often a core group of very active members is responsible for most of the produced content while up to 90% are made up of lurkers (Nonnecke & Preece, 2000).

Due to “[t]he fluid character of many of these netbased movements, and the ease of joining and withdrawing, it is really difficult to estimate what portion of the citizenry is actually involved” (Dahlgren, 2004, p.18).

QdN is an informal organisation, without statutes or an elected board. The collective emerged in response to the so-called HADOPI law9 in France. Most core activists used to fight previous intellectual property rights legislations, such as the directive on computer implemented innovations or the copyright law DADVSI in France (Breindl & Briatte, 2009). These past struggles prompted their awareness of the necessity to look at the European level, if only because two-thirds of all legislations in member states legislations are transpositions from EU law. The actors that held central positions within the network were not random citizens. On the contrary, the form of activism practised by QdN involves highly skilled actors. Most of them hold a university degree—frequently computer science but not exclusively—and as one ally inside the EP formulated it: “they generally come from privileged social classes or at least they have learnt everything that is necessary.” (Interview 2, Brussels, March 2009). The internet does not remove all barriers to participation; education and social capital remain strong determinants of online action ( Jensen, 2006).

Furthermore, they are not only privileged and intelligent individuals, they are also technically skilled, that is, they know how computers function, how the internet works, and in which way they can take advantage of these technologies by developing viral campaigns. For example, a benevolent founder of Quadrature du Net generated the tool LawTracks,10 thanks to which any internet user can compare different versions of problematic articles of the Telecoms Package. A link to the software used for generating this database explains furthermore how it can be installed and adapted—freely—by other activists/associations. The original texts of the directive are extracted from EUR-Lex, a European platform that provides free access to EU law texts.11 These texts are available in the official EU working languages (English, French, German, and Spanish) but further translations can be added.

The fact that la Quadrature du Net can rely on a large base of programmers certainly helps to build a coherent website and tools for analysis. Enabling citizen participation is a central component of QdN, with individuals asked to participate in various ways. They can contribute by looking at their wiki page “How to help” which lists the most recent tasks that need to be done. As such, it enables “flexible participation” ( Joyce, 2007) even though most of the content is produced by the handful of core activists who rely on their technical expertise to build tools, such as LawTracks, that facilitate their intervention into EU policy-making. As one core campaigner asserts:“What I like most actually, it’s to be a toolbox to allow people to understand what is happening and to allow them to act, to give them the tools to act.” (Interview 12, Berlin, April 2009).

A recurrent claim of la Quadrature’s press releases concerns the lack of transparency of policy-making. Decisions are taken in opaque committees and information is sometimes delivered to the public only once as changes can no longer be made. This is particularly the case regarding EU decision-making, which lacks strong mechanisms of democratic accountability. QdN’s attempt to engage citizens with the complex EU system is particularly well received by political representatives who advocate the constitution of a strong European public sphere.

QDN as example of Temporal Elites

“QdN core campaigners can be described as temporal elites. They actively engage with politics, yet focus on a particular domain—internet regulation and intellectual property rights reform—using viral politics techniques to produce awareness and outreach. Thanks to their use of the web, they have not only aquired a good knowledge of a complex supranational policy system such as the EU, but have also used this expertise to take action and mobilize others to act. By continuously informing their readers via press releases, they try to involve citizens in the organisation of the campaign and/or in the pressuring of political decision makers via phone calls, emails, and generating media resonance. On the internet, QdN has provided the most frequent updates on the Telecoms Package reform, from a politicized perspective, and their analyses have been widely read not only by their supporters, but also by their opponents. Their claims have frequently been relayed in the traditional media and across the EU as activists from other countries republished and translated their releases.

The temporal elites are intermediaries between political decision makers and citizens, acting as transmitters of information from one section of the population to the other. Of course, not all Europeans have been touched by QdN’s campaign, given that it is a very specialized domain. Yet, they managed to mobilize a significant portion of the citizenry, as all MEPs spoken to testified, regardless of their position on this issue. As QdN’s prime goal is to influence existing representative democratic politics, they are not an alien element to the competitive elitist system.

Instead, they manage to break inside the power pyramid previously described, effectively merging with the activists and the attentive public in the old model. At the same time, the emergence of temporal elites does not mean the reinforcement of old elites. As barriers of entry are lowered and communication made easier, new groups formerly uninvolved in politics can be drawn in. However, as our case study shows, these new political participants have much in common with old elites with regards to social-economic-status (SES). Classical factors determining political participation such as time and money, education, social capital, and additional “digital factors” such as access, competency, motivation, and know-how, constitute barriers to participation ( Jensen, 2006). Active minorities are often overrepresented in cyberspace (Corbineau & Barchechath, 2003). Hence, political actions, internet-based or not, are rarely representative or inclusive of the various groups constituting society. This is an important challenge to the principle of equality, central to all democractic models. The disruptive power of temporal elites and viral politics, instead, come from the possibility of mobilising small groups of individuals around specified issues, thus competing with traditionally organized interests. The flexibility of participating in the campaign and the aggregation of small efforts allows for more people to become engaged.

The Telecoms Package campaign also shows how communication has become a primary political strategy, making “campaigns themselves political organizations that sustain activist networks in the absence of leadership by central organizations” (Bennett, 2004, p. 130). La Quadrature du Net constitutes a continuous campaign network, established to mobilise against a French law and soon moving to different levels. It is not an organization stricto sensu but an informal network of activists whose primary objective is to prevent “harmful” legislations within internet- related domains. Nonetheless, networks do not suppose that all of their members are equal, only that communication flows more horizontally—hierarchies are also networks. La Quadrature du Net or most contemporary forms of networked activism are indeed characterised by their interconnectedness and absence of strong leadership or central authority. However, within the various clusters composing networks such as QdN, some individuals hold more power than others, generally the most active ones.

QdN took advantage of the effective aggregation of small contributions and new forms of flexible participation. Yet, most of the work has been done by the small group of core campaigners who developed their expertise on internet-related issues. E-government practices have led to the publication of large amounts of official information on the internet. Even the European Union is keen on using these technologies to resolve the democratic deficit it is often accused of. “Netcitizens now dispose of research possibilities that used to only be accessible to State news services” argues Rebentisch (2005, p. 1). Yet, mere access to information does not necessarily increase participation levels. If the mass of information available is larger than before, it is not necessarily evenly spread. For this reason it requires increased expertise to find that information, and to understand, analyse and take advantage of it. This requires time, skills, and interest in engaging with such information, hence privileging some individuals over others. Groups such as la Quadrature du Net constitute new information gatekeepers, certainly working in favour of increased transparency in the political process, but still controlling what information is published as it relates to their cause.”


“In this chapter, we have tried to challenge the misconception that the emergence of new forms of digitally aided political activism, carried out through loose networks rather than through formal organisations, might be heralded as a positive replacement or at least a threat to the existing traditional elitist democractic systems of the world. Instead, we point to the way these new forms of organisation can produce new hierarchies and the emergence of new elites. We use the term temporal elites to describe a heterogeneous group of technologically and socially skilled activists with a strong motivation to influence policy, forming networks around specific issues with a few dedicated individuals in the core and larger groups of interested and potentially mobilizable people forming the important peripheral network. The term is useful for interpreting empirical studies of digital political activism in the light of elitist democratic theory, as our study of QdN shows. We do not claim that the evidence presented in this case is generalizable to all forms of protest activity relying on the internet nor that elitist democratic theory is the sole perspective through which to analyse what is happening in the field. Future research will have to address to what extent internet-based activism is disruptive for representative democracies and work on how to integrate various democratic theories and other conceptual frameworks to shed light upon a given phenomenon.

In the end, whether temporal elites are seen as beneficial or detrimental to democracy is not only a question of democratic ideology, but also one of realism. Digital activism does not end elitism in democracy; it might on the contrary augment the existing system. But it is hard to claim that internet-based activists worsen the situation from an egalitarian point of view. Quite the contrary, the barriers for participation have been lowered. Motivated people with some basic skills can more easily than before use available information, build up a network of activists, and get the message into the political system (or out on the streets). Not everyone is motivated. Some people become interested in politics and, to make a long story short, we do not know why (Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995). Furthermore, some people have the technical and social skills needed to participate successfully. This is connected to factors such as education and social background, but there is no evident unequivocal causality. We believe that political participation by as many as possible in a given society means better, more efficient, and more legitimate democracy.

A limited number of people should be interested enough in an issue to build up the necessary knowledge and devote the time to promote the cause. If social media and other digital media make it easier for motivated people to connect to each other, this is probably a good thing for democracy. But further empirical studies must take into account the old question of whether the elites, new or old, have views that are representative of the people as a whole.”