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5.1.2007 | Von:
Ronaldo Lemos da Silva Júnior

Open Source means sustainable developemt

For developing countries, free software doesn´t only mean saving money. With it, a whole generation can learn the skills neccessary for the 21st century.
Ronaldo LemosRonaldo Lemos (CC)

The Brazilian Government promotes open source software – why?

I think for several reasons. One of them is an economic reason: Open software is cheaper than proprietary software. The other reason, that I think is even more important, is that open source software is dissemination of knowledge. For a developing country like Brazil, if you want to be developed in the 21st century, you have to deal with information, and you have to deal with technical information like software. So open software provides you with the possibility to deal with the code, the source code. And by doing that, you allow an entire generation of people to use that code to learn how it actually works and possibly to develop new code. So I think it is for economic reasons and also for knowledge reasons.

  • German Interview

  • Can you name particular initiatives?

    There are several examples for that. For instance, the main company for data processing within the Government, which is called SERPRO, has a very big and important program about migrating not only their servers, but also their whole desktop software to open source. But its not only that. Several ministries – for instance, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Planning – are also migrating their servers and desktops to open source software – free software, to be more precise.

    Also, within private initiative, the example has been followed by companies. Big retail companies are using free software as well, and other types of companies are following their trail. So basically, you have not only the creation of an environment inside the Government, but also you have companies, small and medium sized businesses, selling and making money out of open source and/or free software.

    What open source software products are right now being developed in Brazil, or have already been published?

    Inside the Government, you have initiatives like the one called "Terra Crime". This is a software that has been developed to control criminality, so it is going to be distributed to police stations. It has georeferential data, so that you can know what areas are facing more problems with public safety and similar things. This is one example, but we have other government initiatives spreading everywhere, things like office applications, e-mail programs that are being developed and given away under free software licences in Brazil.

    To move from Brazil to the larger scale: What are the possibilities of open source models for developing countries in general?

    For instance, think about the problem of digital inclusion, the digital divide – which is a big problem for the developing world. Because so few people in developing countries have access to the internet. Brazil has a population of approximately 180 million people, but only twenty percent, maybe even less, of the population have access to the internet. You have to do something about this. You have to give people access to computers.

    One of the main models for providing access to people is telecentres. That means a small shop, a small kiosk that is generally implemented in the poorest areas. And these people cannot afford to pay proprietary software licences. Another challenge is sustainability over time: Once the government funding runs out, what are you going to do?

    There is experience, in the state of Sao Paulo, with implementing telecentres with free software. And this has been very successful, because it helps the sustainability of the telecentres in the future: They don't have to pay for licences whenever they have to upgrade the software. They are basically using Linux for their operational system, and OpenOffice tools for the main applications in the telecentres. So there is this connection between open source and free software and sustainability. And I think this is very important for developing countries as a whole.

    And what are the limits?

    All right, this is a very good question. Free software is not going to solve all the problems. You have to get other stuff free as well, in order to really have technology becoming emancipating and a tool for autonomy. Its not only free software, it should also bee free culture, free spectrum, and free hardware. If you get these four things together, then you have all tools in place for developing countries. Free software is only one piece of the puzzle.

    Could you just very shortly explain the other three ones?

    Well, the first one is free culture: That's the Creative Commons movement, for instance, in which people share knowledge, and knowledge is available on the internet without any difficulties to get permission, and you can actually reprocess knowledge. That's the idea of Creative Commons, and the main examples are the Wikipedia and all the collaborative websites – the so-called Web 2.0. This is something that is getting really important now for developing countries: this whole idea about collaboration and open knowledge.

    The second part is free spectrum – allowing technology to suppress the scarcity of the electromagnetic spectrum. That means you can actually use WiFi networks free, you have portions of the spectrum which are freely licensed so that people can experiment with them. This is very important for developing countries because these things are what is going to make a difference in the future in terms of how you use the internet and how you get access to and transmit information over the air.

    The last thing is free hardware. By that, I don't mean that hardware should be distributed freely. What I mean is that hardware should not be encumbered, as with DRM systems, for instance. Computers should not be built from factory to become rebellious against the will of the consumer or the person using them. Hardware must be open, in the sense that you type in it, you put commands in it, and it follows your instructions exactly, and not the instructions that are provided by the content industry or other third parties' interests.

    What are other prerequisites necessary to make open source software work for developing countries?

    Well, once you have these things put in place, you definitely need to get financing, you need to get cooperation among the civil society and the government. It's not enough for the government to take upon itself the responsibility to deal with digital inclusion alone. You have to get three actors in place: The government itself, the third sector, and the businesses. If you put these three together, I think you have the right mix to cope with digital inclusion.

    Open source software is often non-commercial. Is there a chance that it will actually raise the GDP in developing countries?

    Absolutely. Actually, open source and free software are commercial stuff, contrary to what people know. There's that famous sentence: When you talk about free software, don't think about free beer, think about free speech. It is "free" as in "free speech". You can actually make a profit out of free software. For instance, this conference where we currently are is partially sponsored by a free software company.

    And the same thing is happening in Brazil. Because there is a business model for open source and free software, which is the following: You distribute the code, and then you charge for services. You charge for customization, you charge for technical support and other stuff like that. And you can actually make money out of that.

    Interview: Sebastian Deterding
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