The idea to pay for publicity was mooted by former Linux Australia secretary Kathy Reid on May 21 when she proposed that the organisation make a grant of $200 to technology journalist Renai LeMay, "with Renai then able to interview LA Council or nominated representatives about technology issues".
LeMay, who at that point was raising funds through Kickstarter for writing a book about "how Australia's political sector is mismanaging technology policy", had been working as an aide to Greens Senator Scott Ludlam prior to that. Before he went to Canberra, LeMay ran a technology website called Delimiter, an activity that he has now resumed.
Linux Australia is the umbrella organisation for Linux user groups in the country. It organises an annual national conference, from which it normally makes sufficient profit to provide seed money for a number of smaller conferences, and also to make grants to individuals or groups that it considers worth funding.
Reid's request was couched in masked language, but stripped to its barebones was a bid to pay cash for comment. She claimed that her request "demonstrates alignment with LA's values of transparency and openness, and aspirational desire to influence tech policy in Australia; It gives LA a stronger voice in tech policy making; We need this sort of research and policy analysis and to spur technology policy debate in Australia".
The matter came to light because Joshua Hesketh, the president of Linux Australia, replied to Reid's request on the general mailing list. Hesketh wrote that between the time the request was made and the minimum two weeks that were needed for community input, the Kickstarter project in question had closed. How community input could be sought on a closed mailing list was not made clear.
"...given the timing the council has missed the opportunity to be involved in the Kickstarter campaign. The council believes this project is still of interest to its members and will reach out to Renai on what might be helpful in an in kind, financial or other way. Therefore the grant request is no longer current and to be closed," he responded.
"However, the council still believes this to be an important and interesting project to its members. As such we'll still be reaching out to Renai to see how we might be able to contribute. Although the grant request is closed, we will continue to follow this up as an item for LA."
Asked for his reaction to Reid's proposal, LeMay responded: "Apologies, but I have to decline to comment for your story."
It was pointed out to Hesketh that "this appears to be a question of paying for publicity, not dissimilar to a cash for comment deal. It was advanced on the LA committee mailing lists and thus was not visible to the public," and his reaction was sought.
He responded in part: "The suggestion in the grant request was to come in at a certain level of funding ($200). The council agreed to support the campaign, but since it was too late to fund, they did not discuss the details such as what amount was appropriate. At the proposed level of funding we would have received the chance to have a telephone discussion with Renai LeMay that we believe would have been informative mostly to the council and in no way would have been a forum for pushing any of our particular values.
"The council has since reached out to Renai to see if there is any specific assistance we could offer. Renai has acknowledged that Linux Australia's values are closely aligned with what he is working on and should there be an opportunity to collaborate on future projects we will discuss further.
"To be clear. If we had backed the project, it would have not been for the ability to make a comment but rather as a show of support for the project itself on its own merit."