Followup with the LUG of Iraq

Proprietary software costs a dollar now, but strict copyright laws are on the way. Can the Linux User Group of Iraq save their country's IT business from proprietary lock-in? And what can you do to help? Adam Davidson of Minnesota Public Radio catches up with the scene in Baghdad.

Life is tough here in Baghdad, no question. But Iraqis have plenty of food and not that many people have been physically injured. What delights many Iraqis most right now is that they can, for the first time in a lifetime, learn about the outside world. They can read whatever books they want, watch satellite TV, and, most exciting of all, get on the Internet and see things they never have: open political criticism, chat rooms, naked people, news from everywhere. There are dozens and dozens of new internet cafes all over Iraq which, with their slow, lousy satellite connections, are filled all the time.

Sana'a Street, the main computer store strip in Baghdad, is overflowing with quite up-to-date computers, cheaper than you'll find in the US, with everything you could ask for. And you can easily find people with surprising expertise in networking, database programming, and general computer support. The software pirates (there is no way to get legal proprietary software in Iraq, and, even now, there are no laws against copyright infringement) have set up countless shops all over the country and their CD-burners are in overdrive churning out copies of Microsoft Windows XP, or sketchy pre-release copies of the company's Longhorn OS due to ship in 2006, along with everything that Adobe, Symantec, and all the others have to offer. In a lengthy search, I found one guy who sold Red Hat Linux 7.2, but he didn't know what it was. Iraqis, until the war, had no idea what a cash machine was or a supermarket scanner. Most had never ridden in an airplane or heard an uncensored broadcast or touched a computer. Since few Iraqis can get visas to any other country, their only way to access this sudden abundance of free information is through the Internet.

This being said, virtually no Iraqis know anything about the debate over open versus proprietary software. Since Iraq never signed on to the copyright conventions common in other countries, Iraqis have no sensitivity to the issue. They believe that all software costs 2,000 dinars, or roughly one dollar, the price software sellers charge for any copied CD. But this will change soon. Iraq's basic laws are being rewritten right now, largely with the help of US government advisors. And, without counter-advocacy, it seems all but certain that Iraq will soon have some of the strictest DMCA-like codes in the world.

I am an American reporter, the Baghdad correspondent for the public radio business show Marketplace and a Linux user. I've searched around and have found precisely two Linux advocates in all of Iraq. Ashraf Tariq and Hasanen Nawfal have created Iraq's only Linux User Group and are, to date, its only members. (Another group, iraqilinux.org, is made up of people outside of Iraq, hoping to encourage Linux use in the country.) Ashraf and Hasanen are quite impressive. They are young graduate students at the until-recently named Saddam University.

Ashraf studies lasers, Hasanen computers. Even under the Saddam Hussein regime, Hasanen somehow developed a strong knowledge of Linux and taught his friend, Ashraf, the basics. Hasanen wrote his own graphics viewing program that seems world-class. Ashraf, with a computer he built himself, including a bizarrely complex and effective CPU water-cooling system he created out of old tubes and a plastic yogurt jug, has tried, valiantly, to convince fellow students to convert to Linux. They are smart, eager advocates with grand ambitions. But they're graduate students who don't have a lot of free time and need help from Linux users around the world.

Ashraf laid out the basic argument for why Iraq needs Linux in a Linux Journal article. The argument is simple: If they choose proprietary software, Iraqis will be software consumers. They will buy expensive proprietary systems and have no ability to compete in the international software market. If Iraq develops a strong open-source base, Iraq's ambitious, bright coders, with their 35 years of pent-up exploratory energy, could become one of the planet's most successful sources of new programming. And Iraq's government ministries and private companies, who have not yet spent a fortune on proprietary self-reinforcing systems, could become leaders of broad Linux use.

As Ashraf told me, Iraq is now a blank, unformatted hard disk and can be loaded with anything. Everything is open in Iraq right now. There are no regimented standards or massive expenditure in a particular monopoly's software. Now is the time to convince Iraqis--government, business, and users--that linux will meet their needs better than proprietary software. This means getting large and small deployments of Linux--from entire government ministries to college student's desktops--and starting now to influence the people who will write Iraq's laws so that DMCA-style restrictions won't take hold. Those laws are being written now.

You can help Ashraf and Hasanen. It can be as simple as emailing a few URLs or offering to provide tech support or help in developing their website. Or you can mail them books, periodicals, and CDs. Or you can send them money, so they can fulfill their ambition to create Iraq's first Linux Center to demonstrate and train.

Ashraf and Hasanen have determined a few priorities.

1. They want to have a cadre of expert Linux users who can help newbies set up their systems.

2. They want to convert college and graduate students to Linux, because students are most curious and eager to explore new ways of doing things. And students soon become professionals in IT and other disciplines where they can influence others.

3. They want to convince government ministries and private companies that Linux is a better solution to their computing needs than proprietary systems.

4. They want to convince Iraq's lawmakers that open-source friendly laws are crucial for Iraq's future.

To that end, Ashraf and Hassanen would like to have some evangel tools: basically a few-page fact sheet that they can hand out to different sorts of users along with CDs of some distribution or other. They prefer Mandrake because it's easy to install and use and Arabbix, because it's a bootable CD, based on Knoppix, that's in Arabic. But they're open to suggestions.

They would like to develop some kind of basic intro to the advantages of Linux, with special sections targeting government ministries, private companies, students, computer science professors, and regular end-users. And then another package of denser material that can help convince lawmakers that open-source-friendly laws will help Iraq. Ideally the material would be in Arabic, though English is fine.

There are obviously tons of materials on the Internet that can be used to support this effort, but it's hard to get good Internet access here and suggestions of help would be most appreciated.

They also are hungry for any hard copy Linux information, including books and magazines and CDs of distributions or useful docs and software. Please note there are still export control issues that prevent some software from being exported to Iraq. See the letter from the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group to the US Department of Commerce for why US Linux users still can't send current distributions to Iraq.

To set up a Linux Center, Ashraf and Hasanen would need enough money to buy a few computers and rent a space. These things are cheap in Iraq, but not free. $5,000 to $10,000 would create an incredible space that would transform Iraq's computing culture.

Certainly, Iraq is a country that needs all sorts of immediate material support. But the US government and countless NGOs are about to pour countless billions to that effort. But it's also a country hungry, no, famished, to catch up with the information revolution that has so changed the rest of the world. There are plenty of computer-savvy, eager people here who just need a little help, and assistance; just a few of you, offering a bit of help, can go a long way.

Please send offers of help, URLs of appropriate and useful information, or simply some encouraging words to: Ashraf Tariq at ashraftariq_398@hotmail.com and Hasanen Nawfal at sigmentfault@yahoo.com.

Adam Davidson is the Middle East Correspondent for Minnesota Public Radio's Marketplace (www.marketplace.org) the daily public radio business show. He can be reached at adam@adamdavidson.com.

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