Brazil’s FOSS utopia image at risk

Fama do apoio ao software livre por parte do governo brasileiro pode ser uma bolha prestes a estourar? – Cobertura completa em português no

According to the international media, Brazil is a leader in free and open source software (FOSS) adoption. The New York Times describes the country as “a tropical outpost of the free software movement,” while BBC News claims that “Increasingly, Brazil’s government ministries and state-run enterprises are abandoning Windows in favour of ‘open-source’ or ‘free’ software.” However, FOSS advocates familiar with Brazil describe a less hopeful situation.

They talk about unsystematic support by the government, and a business atmosphere in which mention of FOSS is more about hype than understanding the underlying philosophy. They say violations of the GNU General Public License are commonplace. Some genuine FOSS adoption does happen, they say, but, too often, it is marred by inefficiency, and possibly widespread corruption.

During the first term of the government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, which began in 2003, FOSS adoption was announced as a major policy. In addition to encouraging federal and state governments to switch to FOSS, Silva’s government also used FOSS in PC Conectado, a program to make inexpensive computers available to the Brazilian public. The announcements of these initiatives created the impression internationally that Brazil would soon become an example of FOSS adoption to the rest of the world.

However, not only is the potential of this promising start yet to be realized, but there are signs that pro-FOSS policies are stalling. When Silva was re-elected in late 2006, his party’s platform contained only one brief reference to free software — a general promise to “improve direct and remote service-rendering to citizens, simplifying procedures, training civil servants and broadening the technological base, including the utilization of free software.” Nothing of the earlier widespread plans for FOSS was in evidence. Possibly, this de-emphasis of FOSS is due to increased opposition by proprietary software interests, such as those trying to mount a constitutional challenge in the state of Rio do Sol against a law giving preference to FOSS solutions in the government.

Whatever the case, Brazilian advocates have learned to be skeptical about claims for FOSS. For example, although Conectiva (now part of Mandriva) widely publicized a deal with systems integrator Positivo that resulted in more than 90,000 computers shipped with Conectiva installed, Debian developer Gustavo Franco suggests that “almost all the users installed Microsoft Windows copies over that.” Franco does not substantiate the claim, but his point is that lower-income Brazilians do not want free software as much as what they see on TV or in ads. Even if his suggestion is not completely true, it reflects the wariness that advocates have learned through bitter experience.

Interest in FOSS still exists throughout Brazil, but signs of progress are hard to see in 2007. “There’re a lot of people doing almost nothing but talking a lot,” says Debian developer Otavio Salvador.


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