Linus, We Love You: A Report from the 5th International Free Software Forum
"Linus, we love you. Please come to Brazil". With these words, hundreds of young people, technology specialists, businessmen, executives and members of the Brazilian government wound up their participation in the 5th International Free Software Forum (FISL), which took place in Porto Alegre, in Brazil's far south, at the beginning of June. Recorded on video by John "Maddog" Hall, president of Linux Internacional, this affectionate plea was aimed at bringing Linus Torvalds, probably the only great figure in the history of free software who has not yet visited the country, to Brazil.
And there is no lack of reasons for such a visit. Brazil is one of the countries whose government has come out firmly in favor of free software. The initiative includes plans to export around 2 billion USD worth of software per year; to replace Microsoft Windows with Linux in 300,000 federal government computers; to transfer 1 billion USD in resources from the Telecommunications Fund (Fust) to the free software-based Digital Communications System (SCD); and to integrate the country's 200,000 public schools via open-source technology.
The movement already has brought dozens of open-code supporters here, ranging from Richard Stallman to Maddog. This year in Porto Alegre, the participants included Lawrence Lessing, founder of the Creative Commons; Ian Murdock, from Debian; Dan McGee, from IBM; and Bdale Garbee, from HP. Hundreds of Brazilians also were present, including arts minister Gilberto Gil and the Linux Kernel 2.4 maintainer, Marcelo Tosatti, who took part in various round tables and an amusing and instructive play devised by the Brazilian firm, 4Linux. All in all, there were visitors from 35 countries, more than a thousand institutions and companies, and 380 Brazilian towns. In 2003, there were representatives from 14 countries and 245 firms.
The decisions by the left-wing government, led by former factory worker Luis Ignácio Lula da Silva, are threatening Microsoft's monopoly, and the company has launched a counter-offensive in an attempt to block the advance of free software here. While the FISL was taking place, MS's multinational head of Brazilian operations, Emilio Umeoka, declared to Reuters that the choice of open code could lead the country in the wrong direction. "Ten years from now we will wake up and be dominant in something insignificant", he said. "I know this is not the best way to create a base of development from which to export because there's no revenue from something free."
Because open-code software plays an important part in the government's industrial policy, published at the beginning of the year, Microsoft's irritation is understandable. Sérgio Amadeu da Slivera, a sociologist who runs the National Information Technology Institute, one of the main federal government body dealing with IT policy, explained the choice of free software:
We are not opting for a product, we are opting for a software-use development model. This is a political decision, and I cannot emphasize this enough, based on an economic reason--a reduction in the remittance of royalties. It also expands Brazil's technological autonomy and strengthens our collective intelligence"
Economics is at the center of the debate over free software in Brazil. Here, the adoption of open-source platforms for free and unrestricted use that can be copied, modified and distributed at will may act as an instrument for social change. The cost of proprietary software impedes digital inclusion. In order to understand the impact of Maddog, Stallman and Linus Torvalds' ideas here, it would be wise, therefore, to examine the country's economy.
With a GDP of around 493 billion USD and a population of 170 million, Brazil boasts the world's 15th largest economy, but it also is rated among the worst when it comes to distribution of wealth. Per capita GDP is around 2,900 USD (versus 37,300 USD in the US), but around 40% of the population have no earnings at all. In addition, around 40% of those who work receive less than minimum wages (223.26 USD) per month, and less than 2% earn more than 1,488 USD. Basic interest rates are 16% p.a., versus 1% in America, which makes investments prohibitively expensive. Any businessperson thinks twice before investing, because it may be more worthwhile to keep the money in the bank. The government is struggling to control inflation, lower interest, stabilize the currency and build up reserves to pay off a huge foreign debt.
At the same time, the country is paying out 1.2 billion USD every year in software licensing fees. It therefore is essential to find some way of keeping these resources within the country. This idea led José Dirceu, the chief of staff, to affirm that free software is a fundamental issue here. In fact, there are numerous examples of how the government and the country are using open code to benefit the economy.
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