A small group of free software advocates has released a declaration of intent to create the Free Software Foundation Latin America (FSFLA). Aided by both the FSF and FSF Europe, the organizing committee hopes to both address regional concerns and to work with other branches of the FSF to promote and defend free software internationally.
The organizing committee has been working since November 2004 to lay the groundwork for FSFLA. The committee currently consists of six members. All have backgrounds in free software, often combined with social or political activism. Federico Heinz and Enrique Chaparro are IT professionals who have assisted in drafting free software legislation in Argentina, Peru, and Colombia. JuanJo Ciarlante is a contributor to the Linux kernel in such areas as Linux IP aliasing and masquerading, while Mario Bonilla is a founder of UYLUG, the Uruguay Linux Users Group. Two participants in Projecto Software Livre Mulheres (The Free Software Women Project) are also on the committee: Beatriz Busaniche, who is also education coordinator for Fundación Vía Libre, a free software advocacy group, and Fernanda G. Widen, a Debian Developer employed at IBM's Linux Technology Center.
Speaking on behalf of the organizing committee, Federico Heinz explains that the organizing committee will determine FSFLA's goals and appoint its board of directors. He adds that, "We expect to broaden [the organizing committee] with additions from all over Latin America over the next few months."
The committee is being aided by both the main FSF organization and FSF Europe (FSFE). Georg C. F. Greve, president of FSF Europe, explains:
I have been visiting Latin America multiple times during the past years and also helped bringing people involved in it over to Europe, so they could a) drain me of experience gained with the start of FSFE, b) see first-hand how FSFE works, c) get an idea of the visions and ideas behind FSFE as inspiration, d) establish the personal links for tight cooperation in the future.
In addition, FSFE has also provided a mailing list and Web space for FSFLA.
Similarly, Richard Stallman says, "I personally am working with them and pointing out when I think a plan won't work, and when words might be misinterpreted." However, Stallman also stresses the independence of the FSFLA, adding, "The FSF as such is not directly involved in setting up FSF Latin America. There's no particular reason why it should [although] occasionally there's a chance to help."
Regional and international issues
The creation of FSFLA comes at time when free software is being adopted by Latin American governments, charities, academic institutions, and large corporations at an accelerating pace.
Probably the best example of this rapid adoption is Brazil, where President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is openly promoting free software. Sergio Amadeu, the president of the Information Technology Institute (ITI), the government institution for promoting free software, has been threatened by a lawsuit from Microsoft, while PC Conectado, a program to increase computer use among lower income Brazilians is widely expected to use free software.
This shift to free software is becoming noticeable in daily life. For example, Brazilian-born Lucio Teles, an Adjunct Professor in the Education Department at Simon Fraser University in Canada and president of Telestraining Global, who is presently teaching at the University of Brazil in Brasilia, notices "a huge difference" in the acceptance of free software since his last visit in 2004. "Then people would talk about it," he says, "But now they are actually using it." In Teles' own area of e-learning, for instance, he notes that there are now three free Learning Management Systems in general use in Brazil, and that they have largely superseded their proprietary counterparts.
It's not just Brazil. Other Latin American countries are also actively considering and deploying free software. Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela have also had pro-free software legislation or government initiatives introduced in recent years. In addition, many municipalities throughout South America have also adopted free software independently of any federal action. Besides allowing for openness in government, free software is also widely viewed as a way for impoverished or indebted Latin American countries to develop technologically, and as a way to promote a domestic computer industry.
While the FSFLA's organizing committee welcomes this rise in free software activity, Heinz observes that it also raises a number of issues that a functioning FSFLA will have to address. "Some adopters," he says, "are still confused over crucial aspects of free software."
Some of this confusion is unique to Latin America, or at least to developing countries. Because proprietary software is usually developed by corporations with headquarters in North America or Europe, citizens of Latin America need to adjust to the idea that software can be a shared effort in which they can play an active role. Added to the fact that computers and Internet connections are expensive compared to average incomes, this perception means that "Latin American participation in free software projects is modest at best," according to Heinz.
Other issues are common to free software world-wide. For instance, Heinz observes that free software is seen largely as a way to avoid licensing fees, rather than as a means towards "freedom and independence in a digital age." Many people, too, confuse free software advocacy with a variety of political positions ranging from communism to neo-conservatism.
The FSFLA organizing committee hopes to address Latin American regional issues. At the same time, it intends that the FSFLA will cooperate closely with sister organizations, such as FSF Europe and FSF India to deal with international issues surrounding software freedom. "We are still polishing a statement of FSFLA's lines of actions, which we will publish soon," Heinz says, "But you can expect education and diffusion to be a large part of what FSFLA will do."
Heinz does not rule out assisting any government-supported free software initiatives, but ads that "whether we will actively participate in such programs is something I cannot foresee at the moment."
Currently, FSFLA is not accepting memberships or donations, since it is not yet operational. However, anybody who is interested in the organization can send e-mail to email@example.com or subscribe to its announcements mailing list.
Those who wish to contribute to its starting capital can write to firstname.lastname@example.org. All contributions will be credited in FSFLA's first financial statement.
No fixed timetable for FSFLA exists, but Heinz expects it to be registered as a non-profit organization by the end of 2005. However, the organizing committee is still deciding on the country in which the organization will be registered. "We're basically trying to find which country's legislation would make it easier for us to act all over Latin America," he explains. "We don't want to rush FSFLA's creation. We'd very much rather take a few months longer than commit some mistake that will be hard to undo in the future."
Bruce Byfield is a freelance course designer and instructor and a technical journalist. He is also a regular contributor to NewsForge, ITMJ and Linux.com.