NPR this morning had a great story about how Brazil is switching 300,000 government computers from Windows to Linux. Not only are they switching to Linux, but they are dropping all proprietary software. The Brazilian government wants access to the source code of the software they use and control over their information (which includes security and portability). Brazil may not be the most wealthy country, but its size and its position as a trend-setter in the developing world certainly makes their open source initiative a threat to Microsoft. Obviously Bill Gates thought so, since he sought to speak with Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at the World Economic Forum in Davos about it.
The World Social Forum has been going on this past week in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where open source software has been discussed and touted as the solution for developing nations. According to John Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “already, Brazil spends more in licensing fees on proprietary software than it spends on hunger.” That is absurd. For those who know how to maintain an open source system, open source is cheaper, more secure, and easier to control and customize. In countries where those in the digital divide consists of the majority of the populace, cost is the #1 concern for closing that gap. I’ve written before about the benefits of using open source software in libraries, and these same benefits are applicable for any person, organization, or government.
Many other governments (China, Japan, France, South Korea, etc.) are switching to open source, and many European and South American countries are far more antagonistic towards Microsoft than the United States. Microsoft says that Linux is not a threat, but it has offered significant discounts on its software to a number of Asian governments in order to stop them from switching over. I recently read this article about the UN supporting the adoption of open source in developing countries:
The United Nations is beginning to put its formidable capabilities into the open source community, initially through its International Open Source Network, which operates in the Asia-Pacific region.
The division calls itself a center of excellence for free and open source software offering educational materials, public sessions with speakers (including Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation) from the open source sphere and acting as an advocate for open source technology in general in the region.
The mission is put forth clear as a vision to reduce the digital divide where Linux and open source solutions serve as an economic alternative in scenarios where budget dollars are tight.
I hope more developing nations – and all nations for that matter – begin to adopt open source solutions to the problem of the digital divide. What has gone on at the World Social Forum is very encouraging and exciting for those of us who are fervent supporters of open source software.