An Interview with Dr. Edgar Villanueva

by Richard Vernon

Dr. Edgar Villanueva has recently become somewhat of a celebrity in the Free Software and Open Source communities as a result of his legislative efforts favoring free software and his highly publicized, well informed and eloquent response (English translation here) to a Peruvian Microsoft executive's letter (English translation here).

Much of the media coverage has focused on the letter and the response. An import part of the story, however, is how the proposal started and how it's garnered support. In the interview below, Dr. Villanueva graciously acknowledges the support of the Peruvian Linux Users' Group. In e-mail exchanges with Antonio Ognio, a Peruvian activist and PLUG member, we discovered that the LUG actually played an advisory role in determining the text of some of the more sensitive areas of the proposed law. The participation of LUGs in the drafting of legislation--that's grass roots at its finest.

LJ What has been your exposure to, or experience with, free software?

Villanueva I've kept up with the Free Software movement in Peru for several years. Both the philosophy that drives it and the fact that, for technical and economic reasons, this software allows the implementation of solutions for a range of organizations.

LJ There are a number of other countries considering proposals similar to 1609, from Asia to Europe to Latin America. Are you familiar with these? If so, are there parts of your proposed bill that make it unique?

Villanueva Bill number 1609 has now been improved and is currently in the committee stage with number 2485, which is also signed by Congressman Jacques Rodrich. Congressman Daniel Estrada has presented a similar bill that is based on the same free software spirit. Among other countries, the closest are Brazil and Argentina; for Europe, we know about the law passed by the German parliament, as well as the proposal in France and the study presented to the English parliament. In Asia, above all there are the actions of the Chinese Government. All these bills are essentially similar, but in ours, like the Argentinian one, we claim exclusivity in all state bodies. Obviously putting this exclusivity into practice will need a whole process, which will take some time, because there are state bodies that are working well with proprietary software and would only choose free software for their future requirements, assuming it's available on the market. That applies quite generally to any institution. I'm only mentioning it because I'm convinced of how critical migration is, the importance of careful planning, and the availability of the necessary resources to cover the time and the risks that you take.

LJ Is the proposed software libre law inspired by that of any other nation?

Villanueva The support of the Argentinian movement is invaluable; above all I'd like to acknowledge the great efforts of Enrique Chaparro, Federico Heinz, all the members of the "proposicion" mailing list, the Cordoba Linux Users Group, the Vía Libre Foundation and Dr. Dragan and his team. All their experience has fed into ours and allowed us to move forward without hesitation. The direct contact with the Argentine movement was suggested to us by Dr. Stallman, and we all know about his pioneering vision in free software.

LJ Is there currently much (user) training for Linux or other free software in Peruvian public schools under the supervision of people with degree-level qualifications? If not, are there plans for this?

Villanueva Here I should emphasize the great support from the local GNU-Peru movement, the PLUG, and above all the "Activismo" group, which pulled out all the stops to get to where we are today. Free software usage is still small, but it's growing exponentially. In the six months since we launched the bill, the movement has grown more, and there are projects started in the universities (Engineering, Ricardo Palma) for the training of future teachers. In one of the universities they already started evaluating a future diploma or certificate in free software. It's not only in Lima: the movement in the provinces in the interior of the country is the strongest and the most interested, because we all know they would be the ones to benefit most.

LJ If the law is passed, do you foresee any need for the government of Peru to develop any of its own software?

Villanueva That could be one of the possibilities, but it's not the essential point of the law. The aim is to establish the state as the principal user and to generate demand for private companies to develop software and provide services. To generate real competition between these firms, which are few in number, but given the conditions of free software will soon multiply and following the liberal laws and globalization of the economy that governments are so fond of, foreign capital could come to invest in this market.

LJ If so, are there any plans for the funding of such?

Villanueva Funding plans could be set up in some cases, just as the state might finance any other project in other sectors, but the aim isn't for the state to become the main software developer. Perhaps it could take part in mixed state and private financing initiatives, but it should not create its own bureaucracy. The main aim is to establish free competition between the firms that want the Peruvian technical and scientific community to have the control to realise their own research and development, thus creating software that is competitive with that of other countries.

LJ There is a growing trend of copyright holders applying licenses not only to software, but also to data. Is there any proposal to require that e-books purchased by the government also be licensed under terms that permit free access and fair use?

Villanueva That's a point that worries me as well, so I keep up with what's happening in other countries, but the idea is to take one step at a time and fight for what is already within our grasp. Certainly, once citizens realise that there are new alternatives to the ones they are using through imposition by the media and private interests, they will demand that their legislators develop similar laws to the one for free software.

LJ Is Peru party to any treaties that foreign proprietary software vendors might use against Bill Number 1609?

Villanueva The bill does not limit freedom of trade in any way and does not affect any other existing law, so that none of the international free trade or intellectual property treaties would be affected by the application of the law.

LJ How would the government of Peru carry out security audits for free software being considered for use?

Villanueva As it's a new model we are proposing, we still have to polish up the regulations for the law, which are missing from the bill for legal reasons. In any case these regulations have to be developed with the participation of software experts, of whom there are quite a few in the country, but from the free software point of view. That's where all the necessary mechanisms for normal and special applications, security, auditing, etc., will be set out.

LJ Does Peru recognize patents on mathematical algorithms or business methods? Could such patents be used to deprive the government of important free software?

Villanueva At the moment, software programs are protected in Peru by the law on authors' rights. And as free software has always respected authors' rights, and has always developed efficiently under that legislation, as long as the law doesn't change I don't believe it will block that normal development. Now, the patents that they've wanted to apply globally since the Hague are something else entirely.

--Translated by Graham Seaman

Richard Vernon is editor in chief and Don Marti is technical editor of Linux Journal.

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