Governments of developing countries promote open source software – why?
I will talk more about Latin America because that is where I come from. There are two bigger initiatives: One of them is in Brazil, the other in Venezuela. The Brazilian government decided to adopt free software as a way to break the dependency that proprietary software creates with the vendors of this technology. They started to ask themselves: I as a government have data, have files which are not mine. Why should I store all this data in a format which I will not be able to read in the future if I don't keep paying licences? How can I develop a local technology industry? And most importantly: How can I give my people access to technologies?
When I talk about free software, I always emphasize that it's about freedom, that freedom is the most important thing about it. But there are other things that come together with that. Developing countries like Brazil, Venezuela or others do not have the money to give their people access to technology in the way that the market imposes up until now. It's just not possible.
Another thing that they started to realize is: Even if a company comes into their country and gives them the software for free – what will happen in the future? They always give it away for free today so that you will pay for it tomorrow. Microsoft loves piracy. They are the greatest fans of it, because the more their products are copied, the more people will get used to them and demand to use them in the future. Microsoft will not go to your house, see if you're using pirated software and make you pay a fine, but Microsoft will go to your company – and the software you know and use at home is the software you want to use in your working environment.
To break this chain of dependency was the first reason why the Brazilian government decided to adopt free software. The second was that they implement most of the free software with open standards, so that if they want to change to other technology or free software in the future, they will be able to do that. Depending on which kind of solution you buy from a proprietary software company, you have no options: You cannot choose your vendor, you cannot choose who delivers support. You are always dependent. The whole business model is based on keeping you dependent.
Can you name particular initiatives?
Venezuela, now, is starting to migrate its systems to free software. The Brazilian government is migrating its systems to free software as well. And they started to develop software for things the citizens have to deal with, like income taxes, software that can run independent from platforms, so they don't oblige you to use a specific platform. So you don't have to buy Windows to be able to talk with your government or fill out forms for income taxes.
They also started huge programs for digital inclusion, again using free software. The government finances and creates "telecentres", which is a place with computers and access to the internet, where people can have access without having to pay. Usually, the government starts, and then the community takes on the responsibility to run this telecentre. The communities organise themselves, they promote talks, mini-courses and such things to teach others about technology. In the city of São Paulo, more than 500.000 people have access to technology, most of them for the first time, using free software in one of these places.
Another project I find very nice are the Cultural Ministry's "pontos de cultura", "culture points". This project was originally created by a community – I participated in the creation. Brazil is a huge country. We have a lot of different cultural scenarios inside Brazil. So we realized that these people don't have any way to produce their own culture if they depend on a big record company, a big movie company for that. So the project tested the minimum hardware that would be required to build a multimedia studio, and gave this equipment – together with free software – to the communities in order to build multimedia centres and produce culture locally.
Apart from breaking dependency: What are the possibilities of open source models for developing countries in general?
Take the local economy, the local IT industry. For instance, in Brazil, one third of all the money that goes into the IT industry, goes into other countries as payment for licences of proprietary software. That's not a lot. But if this money stays in Brazil, it helps to build a stronger national IT industry. Today, we are not building an IT industry; most of the companies we have are vendors of other companies abroad, and they don't care about Brazilian people.
As free software gives you access to the source code and the freedom to modify and redistribute it, it gives you the possibility to create a business model around that. There are now a couple of examples for companies in Brazil which develop a business around free software, and they are doing well.
And what are the limits?
We have to be aware that only giving people the tools, the technology, without telling them how to use them, is not enough. But there is also some research that says if people have access to technology as a natural part of their live, they tend to learn more about it. If they don't have access, it's on another planet, so they don't build interest in it. So we still have to invest in a lot of other things. Brazil has huge problems in education, for instance.
What are those other things, those prerequisites necessary to make open source software work for developing countries?
One thing is that the universities are not prepared for it yet, not only in developing countries, but also in developed ones. Most universities became a kind of – I will use a strong word – dog training centres. You spend four years of your live studying, and if the products you learned to work with are not at the market anymore when you leave university, you are completely screwed, because you didn't learn the technical fundamentals behind those products you used. They train you to be a consumer of technology.
Free software gives you this possibility to look at the fundamentals. And the universities have to realize that free software is not about new products, but that it puts you into contact with the essence of the technology. It's not "We only have the old version, so lets not study that program." You have access to high-level technology as much as you want. So it's important to build awareness of this in universities.
You already talked about Microsoft, and you are currently working for Google. What is the position of such large proprietary software companies of open source software movements in developing countries?
In Brazil, the two companies that are most visible to the IT community are Microsoft and IBM. Microsoft doesn't care about open source software. They want to learn how to destroy it. What they didn't notice is that they won't be able to destroy it, fortunately. Microsoft deals with free software as if it was dealing with car mechanics: We don't know about car mechanics, so we don't care.
IBM has a part that contributes to the community, and that's really nice. But their contribution to the community doesn't make them "good people". They think about their profit. They are seeing that free software is a way to more profit, so they contribute to the community. IBM has now huge development centres for free software around the world. I have worked for IBM, and when I left, there were 700 people in IBM that worked on free software. So they give a lot of help. But that doesn't make them less guilty for keeping other software proprietary. IBM is a lot of companies inside one company, and some are still making proprietary software.
Interview: Sebastian Deterding