India's Upcoming Free Software, Free Society Conference

by Frederick Noronha

Free software offers its users various freedoms. In India, free software enthusiasts are working on a new one--the freedom to build bridges to potential partners half-way across the globe who are facing similar developmental concerns or challenges.

To help facilitate this bridge-building process, the Free Software Foundation of India is organising a four-country conference to be held May 28-29, 2005. The Free Software, Free Society conference brings together hackers from an unlikely set of nations, people who don't speak the same language but who do see much in the idea that knowledge is most powerful when it is shared freely. Arun M,, one of the key organisers of this event, said, "The Free Software movement has shown a new way of knowledge creation based on collaboration and social ownership. This conference explores the possibilities of applying the Free Software model in addressing broader questions such as governance, digital inclusion, development and culture."

Free Software, Free Society is being organised by the Free Software Foundation of India, along with Italy's Hipatia project, the Society for Promotion of Alternative Computing and Employment (SPACE) in Kerala and the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management-Kerala (IITM-K). The conference will be held at Technopark, a technology and software promotion centre in the state-capital of India's southernmost state of Kerala.

Foreign delegations slated to attend the event include a four-member Brazilian delegation led by Antonio Albuquerque of the Ministry of Communication; the 20-member Venezuelan delegation led by Felipe Pérez Martí, an eminent economist and ex-minister; and a three-member delegation from Italy led by Senator Fiorello Cortiana, a member of Italy's parliamentary representation in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). In addition, IT companies from Brazil and Venezuela--PDVSA and CONATEL, respectively--will be sending delegates to the conference. Conference organisers say these IT attendees are coming to Free Software, Free Society keen on the idea of exploring collaboration possibilities with Indian companies.

Organisers say the Free Software, Free Society conference will showcase various free software and free content initiatives being undertaken by conference participants. This includes the Creative Commons, a non-profit initiative devoted to expanding the range of creative work available for others to build upon and share legally. "This will help representatives from different organisations and countries to find synergy and collaborate. Topics covered will include e-governance, bridging the digital divide, education, development, social justice, legal issues and micro-finance", said Arun M.

The Free Software, Free Society agenda was designed to enable attendees to discuss their experiences with using free software and also to explore ways to collaborate on creation of new software applications as well as content. Theme-based discussions are being arranged on the role of free software and free knowledge on socio-economic development, the digital culture and technological advancement.

A business meeting also is incorporated in the Free Software, Free Society conference, which will allow delegations to meet with local IT businesses that work with free software based technologies and platforms. The hope is these meeting will provide an opportunity to plan for collaboration for the future. "This conference is first of its kind to be organised in Asia. Free software and free culture activists from South nations are coming together to discuss issues relating to control over knowledge and creativity", said Arun M.

Arun continues, "This conference came [about] as a result of the World Social Forum (WSW) [held in Mumbai, India in] 2004. During that meet, free software advocates from various countries came together to organise future events. FSF India and Hipatia took the initiative to run Media Center of WSF entirely with free software. For the first time in the history of the World Social Forum, its media center was running only on free software. It was a big success for movement and WSF."

After the WSW 2004 event, the issue that arose was, simply, what next? Hipatia and FSF India started working together, particularly to bring together activists from the nations of the South, including Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and India. From this was born the idea for the upcoming Kerala conference. Arun said, "We also wanted to have a South-South exchange of ideas before the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis. The idea was to create a policy framework that will protect the interest of developing nations."

Organisers were hoping to have the Brazilian singer-guitarist-song-writer turned minister of culture Gilberto Gil present for the event. He could have come; so might have the Creative Commons champion Prof. Lawrence Lessig. But uncertainty over governmental support made this difficult.

Arun said one of the "expected results" of the conference is an "intellectual solidarity" between the participating countries "that may lead to more concrete collaborative initiatives in Free Software in particular and Free Knowledge in general". Such initiatives, he argued, should address various developmental needs of the society, particularly the so-called digital divide or chasm between those included and excluded from the benefits of the computer-generated information era.

"We are sure that this conference will be a starting point of several initiatives in free software and free culture", Arun said. He expects participants to come from a broad mix of fields:

Unlike many other free software conference, focus here is not on technology. We have delegates and speakers coming from various fields--film, music, politics, bureaucracy, education, scientific research, media, programming and so on. This broad spectrum offers challenges and possibilities for this conference.... Everyone is excited about this conference. The Venezuela delegation particularly is interested in establishing relations with India IT companies and other organisations.... We hope this conference will create a long-term collaboration between members of free software communities from all the participating countries. We also [want to] explore the possibilities of specific initiatives in free software for governments and education, as well as for small enterprises and digital content production and sharing.

Speakers scheduled to take part include the Venezuelan economist and free software activist Dr. Felipe Perez-Marti, whose country was the first to mandate free software use in public sector institutions; musician turned free-software campaigner Juan Carlos Gentile, who is involved in initiatives such as Red Escolar GNU/Linux in Latin America; Italian lawyer Marco Ciurcina; and the famous Indian software hacker Anand Babu, who led the engineering team of California Digital that in June 2004 designed and built what then was the world's second-fastest super computer, code named Thunder, using free software.

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