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n 2002, then-U.S. ambassador to Peru, John
Hilton, delivered a threatening letter to the Peruvian congress using his
public office to act on behalf of a very powerful American private interest.
The letter, which was leaked to the press, stated that Microsoft Corporation
and its chairman Bill Gates disapproved of Peru debating a proposed law,
Special Bill 1609, which favored the use of free software in public administration.
Hilton warned its passage would harm U.S.-Peru relations.
Tux, the penguin, represents the GNU/Linux computer operating system and its kernel. Tux was designed by Larry Ewing. Linux is among the most famous examples of free software and of open-source development. We threw a sombrero on Tux for the article. We could've done worse things...
This incident was an early salvo in a brewing international
conflict. As nations of the world increasingly turn to free software to cut costs
and promote local development, some powerful North American commercial interests
have responded by bullying. Sometimes they have done so by proxy, such using
public servants like Ambassador Hilton. Sometimes they have threatening
legal action to intimidate outspoken critics such as Brasil's National Institute
of Information and Technology (ITI) president Sergo Amadeu who compared
Microsoft business practices to that of drug dealers. Sometimes, they have
threatened governments directly, such as last November, when Microsoft CEO
Steve Ballmer threatened to sue Asian governments who choose to use free
Part of what distinguishes free software (sometimes
called open source or libre software) commercially from proprietary software
is a matter of licensing. While all software is protected under copyright,
commercial proprietary software is often licensed under terms that create
additional restrictions, such as limiting where one can use such software
and who may be allowed to use it. Often proprietary commercial software
includes licenses to explicitly deny users the right or ability to modify
software to fit their needs or access their own data, the right to speak
about the functionality of the software they purchased, or to resell it
to others when they no longer wish to use it. In contrast, free software
expressly asserts and grants these fundamental rights through licensing,
and does so in a way that enables others to fully reclaim these rights such
as by providing source code.
While both free and proprietary commercial software
have co-existed uneasily for a long time in many parts of the world, I believe
what has made certain private North American commercial interests respond
directly in Latin America is that many nations there have chosen to promote
the use of free software specifically in public administration.
There already is a long history for the support and
use of such software in Brasil by the Workers party, starting from the days
when they controlled the state government of Rio Grande Du Sul and instituted
private/public sector partnerships through projects such as procergs.
Most recently the government of President Luiz Lula
Da Silva has chosen to use free software solutions built around GNU/Linux
exclusively in a project to make computers available to the poor, as recommended
by MIT this past March.
Free software in public administration is not just
about software for special government programs such as digital inclusion
for the poor. This is a battle about the purchase and use of all software by national
governments and the terms such software will be provided under. This about
the procurement of servers and database applications used to house government
data. This is also about the software that will be purchased and used on
the desktops of government office workers every day, and whether they will
continue to purchase and use Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office under
the terms of a monopoly supplier, or free software alternatives such as
GNU/Linux and OpenOffice.
As Latin American governments increasingly use free
software, suppliers will need to adapt to provide it. Private industries
which interact with government will also be affected to remain compatible,
and provide additional private markets for those vendors. All of these create
a national economic environment that certain companies, such as Microsoft,
would need to change in order to fully participate in.
One reason that free software is being promoted by
Latin American governments is a question of initial cost. In Brasil, they
expect to save over $1 billion dollars annually through the use of free
software and elimination of license fees. Many other Latin American governments
are of course keenly aware of the cost benefits of free software. In some
countries, such as in Peru and Argentina, they have tried passing special
procurement laws to more rapidly increase the adoption of free software
in government. In Venezuela, the use of free software in public administration
is now supported directly by President Hugo Chavez.
While it is true that the total cost of using software
is not represented in the purchase price or license fees alone, most other
factors also tend to favor free software and better explain the potential
for large cost savings through its use. One reason is commercial free software
will often work on existing and older hardware rather than requiring new
hardware to be purchased. Another is that since proprietary commercial software
publishers depend on the number of licenses they can sell, it is often desirable
to require as many additional software sales to perform a given level of
work as possible. It should therefore come as no surprise that I often find the same workload
that can be done, for example, with a typical GNU/Linux system may require
three or four times as many proprietary servers, which also represents additional
hardware and support costs.
Free software also can result in lower costs through
the absence of monopolies. One cannot achieve a monopoly in free software
in part because there can always be another free software publisher that
can supply the same goods at a lower cost should this occur. This is in
fact one of the main reasons for governments to prefer using free software
instead of proprietary commercial software: When money is spent on proprietary
software, only a small proportion of that money goes towards funding useful
services and software development, as a large part of it goes as a monopoly
rent to the shareholders of the proprietary software company. On the other
hand, in the world of free software, there are no such monopolies, so money
that is spent on free software is good for creating jobs and hence offers
other direct and local economic benefits. In Latin America money that is
spent on proprietary commercial software serves mainly to make already-rich
foreign software publishers even richer.
In trying to create a market for or to promote the
use of free software, many Latin American countries, such as in Peru, have
often chosen to do so through procurement laws, which cover how a government
will purchase goods and services. These laws typically state the terms of
purchase that a government will use. Often they are designed to prevent
bribery, and to make the process of government purchase transparent. This
is often done through the use of competitive bidding. Competitive bidding
allows products created by different manufacturers and publishers to compete
on providing the same service, and by doing so, prevents the government
from being forced to rely on a sole source supplier. Propriety commercial
software, by its very definition and through the rights it takes away from
users, is software which can only come from a single supplier.
In providing opportunities for Latin American citizens
to directly participate in the development and worldwide commercial software
market locally, free software offers incentives for forming a local software
industry that can then compete on an equal basis with that of any other
advanced country in the world. What we often forget is that software does
not require expensive plants or high capital investment to develop.
Software may only require people who are free to use
their skills and natural talents. Certainly, the nations of Latin America
can and do produce people with such talents and skills. Free software means
these people can practice these skills for their own benefit and the benefit
of their society as a whole without having to look for work in or migrate
to foreign lands. By choosing to procure free software, the national government
can directly encourage this.
If Latin American countries choose to create an economic
environment that accepts participation by free software, existing corporations
need not be excluded. Companies like Microsoft could choose, for example,
to change the way they license their existing products. They are also free
to adapt and offer services based on existing free software already in the
marketplace. Instead of competing in these new markets, some companies have
responded by trying to make it impossible for Latin American governments
to choose and use free software at all. These companies not only resort
to bullying, but also lobby our government to modify free trade treaties
and use international organizations to include conditions that try to make
it impossible for Latin American nations to choose alternative products
or develop local markets.
I have often seen WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) used in this way to promote
the private commercial interests of wealthy corporations. WIPO is often
used to promote treaties and laws which export both the North American corporate
notion of pharmaceutical and software idea patenting to developing nations.
Private corporations then using these same treaties to then enforce existing
North American patent monopolies, thereby preventing the development of
competitive local industry. Another example of market control through trade
treaties is the "IP rights chapter" of Free Trade Area of The
Americas (FTAA) treaty.
One way I have seen Latin American countries respond
to WIPO and other patent bearing treaties has been by banding together with
other developing nations around the world to help promote a development
agenda for WIPO and bring it into harmony with the wishes of the UN general
assembly. Yet powerful American and European commercial interests have chosen
to use the WIPO chair to explicitly bar NGOs representing the interests
of developing nations from attending or participating in WIPO discussions
on a development agenda, even those organizations already duly certified
and recognized with observer status.
The people of Latin America, of all people, surely
must understand well about what corporate bullies are. Last century many
nearby Caribbean nations were routinely invaded by marines as part of the
banana wars to prop up the interest of specific North American corporations
such as United Fruit. While last century's bullies came with tanks and guns,
the bullies of this new century come now with laws and treaties they wish
Latin Americans to adopt that undermine the heritage and the most basic
rights Latin American citizens enjoy, not for the benefit of Latin America,
but once again for the benefit of private North American corporate interests.
The right to innovate is not a privilege to be restricted to a tiny minority,
is not even a right specific or exclusive to the question of free software
alone, but is a basic and fundamental right every human being must be free
DAVID SUGAR wrote this article for upsidedownworld.org
Some citations and sources...
Wired Magazine; "Microsoft's big stick in Peru"
Can I use myself as a primary source? :)
GNU.org.pe: Peruvian Congressman's Open Letter to
Lawrence Lessig blog
"Use Linux and you will be sued, Ballmer tells
PROCERGS: todos os estados deveriam ter uma
Brazil: Free Software's Biggest and Best Friend
MIT official advocates open-source on computers for
poor in Brazil
The use of open source represents annual savings of
US$ 1.1 billion for
the Brazilian government.
Venezuelas Public Administration to Use Open Source
The WIPO Development Agenda and Why You Should Care
Experts: Central/South American History