February 1, 2003

Commentary: Hard for Open Source software to be mainstream in developing countries

- by Sebastian Bassi -
There is a lot of fuss about government adoption of Open Source Software (OSS) around the world. One well-known case is the initiative in Peru, but there are several more in other third world countries like Argentina [1], Brazil, Paraguay and Chile. There are some reports stating that OSS is a positive thing since it helps to reduce costs [2] and avoids the problem of technological dependence. While it is very straightforward to think about adoption of OSS by the government in developing countries, most reports in the US and Europe on this topic are misleading, since they tend to overlook how South American politics actually work.

This article is based on my knowledge about the situation in Argentina, but I believe it could be applied to any other developing country.
My opinion that Open Source software will not be readily adopted in developing countries is sustained by three points.

1- Ignorance: OSS stuff (GPL, GNU/Linux, source code, binary file and so on) is not always easy to get if you are knowledgeable about computers. You don't need to be a System Engineer to grasp all these concepts, but at least you should know something about computers. Most politicians in Third World countries are computer illiterate; some are just illiterate (like the Governor of Tucuman Province in Argentina who didn't finish elementary school).

Some congressmen have a degree, but most of them are lawyers. We know that lawyers usually don't get it, even in the U.S (please be careful, I'm not saying that ALL lawyers don't get it, just most of them). Just to show a nice sample of what I mean, take a look at this law proposal (aka DMCA-AR) [3]. If passed, it would criminalize standard system administration procedures. There's no bad intention here, just plain ignorance.

There are some computer savvy congressmen, but most of them are not able to say what an operating system is, don't even mention the source code!
It is very hard to convince somebody about something they cannot understand very well.

2- Corruption: If the software is free (or at least significantly cheaper), how can the politicians profit from it? Itâs very sad, but most politicians are on the take. You can't ask for a bribe to get someone to deploy hundreds of Apache installations (instead of Apache put your favorite OSS here). It is very easy to get a "commission" when you buy something on behalf of the government,

Corruption is so well installed in Argentina that there is an "official" office to get your passport and an "unofficial" one to speed up the process, and you get to the last one only by recommendation from a politician or from a police officer (for the records, it is around 1200 Lavalle street, Buenos Aires). You could even buy a custom-made law from your local city hall for less than $30K (this was shown on TV thanks to a hidden camera).

OSS would threaten a huge source of revenue for politicians, so it is very unlikely they would create or approve a law on this matter.

3- Piracy: Piracy rules here. Most people have never seen an original copy in their whole life. Since software is almost "free" (you have to pay $3 to your favorite software dealer) people can't see as an advantage the free nature of the OSS. Some companies (especially international ones) have some legal software, but they are the exception. Most people think the value of the software is the same as the value of the media where is recorded. When you buy a PC, the software is bundled with the machine. The vendor doesnât even give you the choice to buy the software. Also, most people canât and won't pay hundreds of dollars for something that can be bought for a few pesos.
Annual income per household in Argentina is less than $3000 USD, so most people just canât pay $500 USD for Office + Windows.

While I was writing this note, a very good law promoting OSS was approved in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul [4]. So, maybe Iâm wrong and the rampant ignorance, corruption and piracy wonât stop OSS from taking over.


[1] http://www.grulic.org.ar/proposicion/proyecto/leye s/904-D-02/texto_orig.html
[2] http://www.ibm.com/linux/RFG-LinuxTCO-vFINAL-Jul20 02.pdf
[3] http://www.grulic.org.ar/proposicion/proyecto/leg_ rel/del_inf/
[4] http://www.deputadobohngass.com.br/int_slivre_lei. html, http://www.softwarelivre.unicamp.br"


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