Linus, We Love You: A Report from the 5th International Free Software Forum

by Pedro Cadina

"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.

Negligible Importance

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"

Instrument for Change

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.

Digital Inclusion

Discussions on how to utilize more than 1 billion USD in the Fust, a fund set up when telecommunications were privatized and funded by a periodic levy on the new operators, began under the previous administration. The Fust's main aim is to promote universal access to telecommunications services and digital inclusion, the latter by way of the SCD. During the FISL, the president of the National Telecommunications Agency, Jaime Ziller de Araújo, reaffirmed the willingness to use free software in the SCD, which will connect schools (200,000 of them), libraries and other public institutions.

The Communications Ministry has introduced the Gesac--Government Electronic Citizens' Attendance Service--a digital-inclusion program connecting 3,200 computers to the Internet through satellites. All of these machines are equipped with free software. In addition to providing remote communities with access to information, the Gesac also encourages integration among the communities involved, creating knowledge networks.

According to the ITI, six ministries are currently changing over to free software: Foreign Affairs, Mines and Energy, Education, the Arts, Science and Technology and Communications. By 2005, 40% will be using open code. Cost savings over five years are estimated to be 5.8 million USD.

Free Software in the Rainforest

Free software is helping the most isolated communities in the Amazon rainforest to gain knowledge, education and jobs. In conjunction with the ITI, Eletronorte, a state-owned electric utility, has set up the Topawa Ka'a Rain Forest Digital Inclusion Network, which benefits indigenous communities affected by the building of river dams for the construction of power plants.

The people concerned have free access to the Telecentros (Digital Inclusion Centers), where they can undertake community projects, take courses, learn to create Web pages, play games and listen to music, undertake scholastic research, receive messages and seek job vacancies.

The Telecentro model was developed over the last few years at the other end of the country, in São Paulo, a teeming metropolis with more than 10 million inhabitants. Launched by Sérgio Amadeu da Silveira, the Telecentros in Brazil's wealthiest city were designed to provide Internet access for the underprivileged. The city government chose those neighborhoods with the lowest HDI (Human Development Index) and installed between 10 and 20 computers, all equipped with free software. They cost under 40,000 USD a year to run, 50% less than they would with proprietary software.

There are now 108 Telecentros in São Paulo, providing 85,000 courses and with 370,000 users. But their biggest achievement is the social inclusion that they foster. They are located in extreme low income areas, where manual workers live cheek-by-jowl with drug dealers, thieves, addicts and street dwellers. However, the streets around the Telecentros are becoming drug-free zones, because they act as a positive integrating factor among the youth, keeping them away from the criminal milieu. They also have been used for other purposes, such as showing movies or as a collection point for winter clothing for the needy.

The Banks

Free software and Linux also have been highly successful in Brazil's corporate area. While the FISL was in progress, during the opening of a congress on banking technology, the powerful Febraban (Brazilian Federation of Bank Associations), pointed out that 42% of Brazilian banks, including all the leaders, already had adopted the Linux operating system and an additional 41% were considering doing so. "There are great potential savings, since a good deal of the banks' technology costs come from software-licensing fees", declared Carlos Eduardo Fonseca, Febraban's head of technology.

According to an IDC study quoted by Executivos Financeiros, a specialist banking publication, Linux use in Brazil is expected to grow at an average 9.62% p.a. through 2007, 11.3% in 2004 alone.

In order to help the government and companies make the change, Cobra, a state-owned technology firm, has come up with FreeDows, an open-code package containing an operating system, word processor, spreadsheet and browser. Its graphical interface is similar to that of Windows XP, and it can run Win32 applications. In fact, the company markets it as the desktop Linux that looks like Windows. It will cost 27 USD per user, or "a twentieth of Microsoft products".

Will Maddog Convince Linus?

At a dinner before the FISL began, Maddog highlighted free software's quality as being its most important advantage, while the Brazilians emphasized its economic savings. However, there was no disagreement regarding its benefits and the changes that it could bring about in Brazil. And Linus Torvalds? Will he pay us a visit to see for himself the benefits of his creation in the country of samba, carnival and, now, free software? Let's hope that Maddog's filmed plea will convince him.

Pedro Cadina ( is a journalist and director of the communications agency Via News Comunicação.

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