October 23, 2002

Talking with Open Source advocates from Peru and Vietnam

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -

Last week, at a conference in Washington, D.C., I listened to a speech by (and had private conversations with) Peruvian Congressman and "Open Source Hero" Edgar Villanueva and an interesting gentleman from Vietnam who both told me, in no uncertain terms, why their countries must switch to Linux and Open Source instead of depending on proprietary software from foreign companies.

Villanueva gave his formal speech through an interpreter, and our private conversations took place using a combination of my negligible Spanish, his negligible English, and casual translation help from multilingual bystanders. He's a charming man, an orator so talented that his skills came through even though he was speaking in a language most of his audience didn't understand. Even though he is often identified as "doctor," his doctorate is in jurisprudence. He described himself as "just a lawyer and politician, not a technical person," and said he first encountered Linux and Software Libre when he was mayor of a small town and wanted to get some computers for the local school so that students could learn what they needed to know to get decent jobs in modern society.

Villanueva's town didn't have money for proprietary operating systems and software. His (then) IT advisor wanted to do what most people in Peru and other low-income countries have always done: make illegal copies of someone else's software. But Villanueva wanted a legal solution if one was available, and it turned out one was out there: Linux, courtesy of some local Software Libre advocates he met more or less by chance. They installed Linux, he tried it, and it worked. Glory be! Suddenly a school in a small, impoverished town had a few old but usable computers up and running, and kids learning how to use them, without breaking any laws -- or spending all of the town's tiny education budget on computer hardware and software.

Countries like Peru depend on foreign trade for many necessities, and trade treaties with the U.S. and other "first world" countries that produce most of the world's high-end manufactured goods have intellectual property provisions that have gotten increasingly strict in recent years, so crackdowns on illegal software have become common. There is a strong element of hypocrisy to this crackdown, Villanueva said in his speech, because "Both the prosecutors and the judges are usually using pirated software when they try these cases."

Villanueva pointed out that 25 percent of Peru's national budget goes to pay foreign debt, much of it accrued under "the dictatorship" that preceded the current, elected government in which Villanuava now participates on the national, not just local, level. To much laughter, he said, "This conference is the first thing the World Bank has done that might help us," the irony being that much of Peru's overseas debt is owed to the World Bank, and the World Bank has a reputation as a rather ham-fisted collector, but we were talking about Linux, Open Source, and Software Libre in an auditorium at the World Bank building.

The subject of the U.S. ambassador to Peru trying to stall Villanueva's attempt to get Peru's government to pass Open Source preference laws came up. Villanueva was incensed about that act of interference. Don't forget: The U.S. government has a long history of meddling in the internal affairs of Latin American countries on behalf of U.S. companies, and to Villanueva and many other Peruvians the current "carrot and stick" approach Microsoft is taking in its dealings with Peru (and other Latin American nations) is the same colonialism that once had U.S. troops enforcing United Fruit Company policies in the region by force of arms. Yes, getting a lot of donated software is nice, and Microsoft is donating plenty of software to Peruvian schools and nonprofits, but U.S. companies have built plenty of hospitals and other facilities in Latin America in the past -- while taking far more out of the recipient countries in profits than the amounts they donated.

Villanueva also pointed out the hypocrisy of the U.S. government boosting Microsoft overseas "while sanctioning the company at home." Another theme he harped on was "data ownership," meaning that information placed on computers owned by the Peruvian government belonged to the Peruvian people, and should not be held hostage to proprietary file formats owned by any one company, especially a foreign company. He also noted that his proposed law was not, as Microsoft and its allies have claimed, discriminatory in any way; that as long as vendors are willing to supply source code for all software they sell to the Peruvian government, "we do not want to mandate any one company -- or give anyone preference by race, religion, national origin or (brief pause) sexual orientation." (Much laughter.)

Then there's the question of using computers to tally votes. Villanueva believes every line of code used in voting machines and for vote counting must be available for public inspection as an anti-corruption measure. He admits that the average citizen may not understand computer programming, and that he doesn't either, but points out that political parties and interested citizens' groups ought to be able to hire their own programmers to make sure all the election computers are running correctly -- and honestly. Peru is no stranger to "stolen" elections. Villanueva doesn't want to see any more of them there, and believes the only way to keep shady politicians from bribing the people who program and operate the election computers is to have all of their code and other internal functions visible to anyone who wants to look at them.

Later, over coffee, I invited Villanueva to move to the United States and run for Congress here. He politely declined. Aside from citizenship issues, he is happy in Peru, and he'd rather not be overly involved with the U.S. government, thank you. His final word on the subject of buying lots of proprietary software from U.S. and other foreign companies when there are free (Libre) and Open Source alternatives available was, "Perhaps they can give us some of that software in return for paying down our World Bank debt, eh? That would be much better than doing some software donations while still trying to get us to pay all the debts while trying to sell us all kinds of software we can't afford because of those debts."

Vietnam's situation is similar to Peru's

Actually, it's worse. Vietnam's estimated software piracy rate is 97 percent, the world's highest, as opposed to Peru's mere 80 percent. But then, Peru's $2,400 per capita annual income looks like big money to the average Vietnamese person, who gets more like $440 per year. Even at the top of the Vietnamese income scale, things are bleak by U.S. standards. Imagine a corporate CEO there earning 50 times the average worker's salary -- a ratio that was considered normal in the U.S. before our Corporate Masters decided they should have everything and workers should have nothing -- and you come up with $22,000 per year. $1,500 in software for a fully-capable office PC is a big dent in that income. Do you really think even a Vietnamese at the top of the country's salary scale is going to cough up full price for Photoshop when he can get it on an illegally copied CD for $3 or $5?

But, once again, those pesky trade treaties come into play. Offshore-owned factories in Vietnam that make things like sports shoes, clothing, and circuit boards may offer terrible wages and working conditions by U.S. or European standards, but for many Vietnamese they offer the only available chance to live The Good Life. Those factory salaries offer workers a chance to own such luxuries as a battery-powered radio and a bicycle, possibly even (after years of saving and struggling) a motor scooter and a TV. But if the intellectual property protection provisions of various trade treaties aren't met, the United States and other countries that are heavy in the software, movie, pop music, TV show, and computer game industries can and -- more and more -- will retaliate against "pirate" countries like Vietnam, and all the export-based factory jobs will go away.

So Vietnamese software piracy must -- and will -- stop. In the minds of proprietary software company executives, this apparently means, "Woo! Lots more sales! Let's break out the champagne!" In the minds of people like Professor Tran Luu Chuong, of Vietnam's Ministry of Science and Technology, it means, "We had better find a way to bring our country online and into the 21st Century without using proprietary software we can't possibly afford, now that the big software companies are getting so nasty about us copying their products without paying them."

To Professor Chuong, it is an "extremist" stance to mandate the use of Open Source software by law, while in his eyes a "moderate" stance is merely to encourage its use. And whether through mandates or encouragement, he believes Vietnam needs to use Open Source software for reasons that go beyond money and trade. He said, "We need to increase our IT security and IT sovereignty," and later added, "We need to reduce our independence on international vendors."

I often think U.S. companies -- and the U.S. government officials who so readily do their bidding -- underestimate the amount of national pride other countries' citizens have. Dr. Chuong is a wizened, white-haired gentleman, old enough to remember U.S. soldiers fighting in his country, perhaps old enough to remember French troops and colonial governors in Hanoi. He is not interested in protecting American or European software companies' interests. His objective (and his job) is to protect Vietnam's interests, and if that means he funnels his ministry's budget into translating more Open Source software into Vietnamese, and writing custom applications in Vietnamese instead of sending money to foreign companies for software licenses, he will lose no sleep over any potential income those foreign software companies may lose because of his decisions.

Indeed, hardly any government officials from "developing countries" seem to be losing much sleep over the possibility of proprietary software companies losing sales to Linux and Open Source, and now a growing number of budget-squeezed U.S. government and corporate IT managers seem to be echoing their third world counterparts' sentiments. I suppose I should be happy about this. After all, as a U.S. taxpayer, every time my own government chooses a low-cost Open Source solution over an expensive proprietary one, it saves me money!

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