October 2004

A social movement for freedom of knowledge

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In November 2004, Bellanet Latin Ameica and the Caribbean began work on a project with the objective of obtaining an overview of how Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) is being used and produced in this region, as well as what are the common agendas that bring diverse groups and organisations together around “Free Software”? This project is supported by PAN-Americas http://web.idrc.ca/en/ev-2707-201-1-DO_TOPIC.html and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

We approached the free software community with the notion to not only collect data and answers, but also with the idea that they could help generate the questions that would be most useful, relevant and appropriate for them. This was a participative investigation and therefore, our participation was also important. In the process of understanding the community, we integrated ourselves into it, by attending and utilising its spaces of interchange and by supporting its common initiatives. The following are some of the lessons that we have learned till date.

FLOSS, a social movement
From the onset of the project, a constant need to generate knowledge regarding free software from a perspective of social research was felt. The literature reviewed, allowed us to determine the economic, legislative or technical character of many of the existing materials. For that same reason, we maintained a perspective of understanding about how FLOSS is impacting the region in the formulation of technological alternatives oriented towards social change.

From this perspective emerged one of the first elements of the dialogue with other stakeholders in the region, that is, the need to orient the research towards the 'movement' working with FLOSS in the region. The 'movement' encompasses the groups, organisations, and institutions who from very diverse perspectives and positions, support and participate in the adoption and the development of free technological alternatives. The interest would then be to focus the study towards FLOSS as a theme that by its very characteristics allow it to generate a social movement around it, rather than towards the study of FLOSS as a technological phenomenon.

Some of the characteristics of FLOSS that generate the organised social movement around it are linked with the growing (although still very limited) access to information and communication technologies, the acquisition of technological user skills by some of the key sectors (for example, social organisations and universities) as well as the recognised need to take control of the language to allow for the transformation of the technologies, for the technologies to begin responding to their own needs.

Like many other social movements, the movement around FLOSS finds its origin in the surrounding conditions and realties of the region.

  • The structural tensions that are prevalent have an impact in concrete interests of a group of individuals and organisations. In the case of FLOSS, a large diversity of groups have seen their economic, political and social interests limited by conditions that favour a monopoly of knowledge products, in particular, software. The huge costs incurred for the acquisition of software, the intellectual property schemes that make it difficult for a large portion of the population to create new knowledge, and the exclusion of marginalised groups due to their irrelevance in the market, are some of the prevailing structural tensions that have created the FLOSS movement.
  • There are deficiencies in the abilities to confront these conflicts. The existing structures are not adequate to be able to develop concrete proposals for confronting these types of conflicts, or the organisations and individuals do not have sufficient knowledge in order to do it. Particularly, in a theme that is identified as merely technical, or very related to the intricate legal system of each country, the movement around FLOSS has begun to cover an area that until now has been explored but not put into practice. Concepts such as knowledge products, 'copyleft', the freedom to share and to create in the community, are all being related to everyday life and have started direct action from groups and individuals.
  • In the case of the movement around FLOSS, groups and individuals come from varying and diverse fields. Some come from a technical background, which enables to produce better software through a collaborative model and the free distribution of the results. Others, who come from social and economic development backgrounds, identify with FLOSS as a key way to promote more equitable and sustainable societies. Others view FLOSS as an opportunity to generate income through a competitive business model when confronting the monopolistic forces in the market. From diverse interests, personal approaches and mystics, the groups and individuals form a community of abundant political and ideological diversity.

A social movement, such as the movement around FLOSS, attempts to identify a collective identity and finds its bases in pre-existing networks in diverse sectors. For the purpose of our research, we chose to include and to differentiate the various sectors. National and local governments, private enterprise, civil society organisations, and user groups and developers of FLOSS were grouped for the purpose of investigation.

The diverse elements that jointly form the context in which this social movement has arisen would require a separate analysis that is beyond the scope of this investigation. However, it is important to emphasise that the work of many individuals and organisations, identified as part of the movement of FLOSS in the region, have conceptually surpassed the technological approach of software as well as the conditions of hardware, in order to begin a concrete debate on the implications of a free model versus a proprietary model for the construction of a society in which knowledge is and remains free.

Aspects of the study on the movement of FLOSS in LAC
Due to its huge diversity and amplitude, the FLOSS theme raises a complex and interesting panorama. In the first month of work, we identified partners in each of the six sub-regions of Latin America and the Caribbean. Based on their own experiences and expectations, these partners, working as a group, defined the investigative approach of the research.

In the first participative process, the themes became clearer. If we are studying the social movement around FLOSS, several aspects emerged as high-priority.

The collective production of commons
Individuals and organisations group together and participate in diverse processes of collaboration in order to use and to produce (in this case), software. These processes have their own rules for participation, for the establishment of leadership, for the creation of community identification, and for the massive communication and distribution of contents.

The gender roles in these collaborative processes
The participation of women and men, the areas in which they collaborate and the forms in which their participation is developed reflects (and in some instances, challenges) the prevailing gender roles in the region. The small number of women participating in the community of FLOSS development in coding and documentation reflects the limited number of women in technical and scientific careers. However, women participate to a greater extent in the user communities as well as the groups dedicated to the distribution, education, and reflection on the social impact and incidence in public policies related to FLOSS.

Governmental open source interests

Brazil's open source policy
Last year the Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, finalised a policy recommending that federal ministers, agencies and state enterprises will install open source software, such as Linux, instead of proprietary software on the new computer systems. One of the primary goals of this policy was to have at least 80 per cent of government computers purchased during 2004, to support open source software. Today Brazil is one of the leading countries in FOSS adoption. Early this year it was announced that it would train 1,000 state workers to use FOSS. This is part of an initiative expected to save the government as much as 33 million US dollars. The training programme will consist of over 100 different courses ranging from basic usage to more advanced topics such as networking. There are variety FOSS initiatives in progress in the Brazilian government that will need these skills. Brazil's Health Ministry is migrating 30 per cent of its computers to Linux this year. Brazil's national congress saved 15 per cent of its IT budget after moving to Open Office.

Spain's 'educational' open source initiative
In April 2002, the Extramadura Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, had initiated a project to convert computer systems from proprietary systems to open source software (OSS). This included creation of Ministry's own OSS distribution called GNU/LinEx.

There were two reasons for choosing this: First, unaffordable to pay for 100,000 licenses, and second, safety reasons. It was seen as impossible to depend on a single company, and not have access to the codes. Now, using OSS, everything can be updated as and when required. From an educational point of view, there is no difference between GNU/LinEx, as what students require is 'transparent software'.

References:

http://www.asiaosc.org/article_201.html
Open Source Software, by Paul Dravis, infoDev


The conditions for the appropriation of FLOSS
Elements such as the integration of FLOSS initiatives in education, governmental institutions, as well as the initiatives of public access to the information technologies, affect the possibilities of a true appropriation of FLOSS as a tool for development. The FLOSS movement works in a context with certain existing conditions of hardware and software, as well as defined conditions of access to the Internet. As well, there are dissimilar legal realities that either facilitate or obstruct the development of initiatives and products in a model of free licensing.

The specific characteristics of the movement
FLOSS is referred in diverse scenarios in Latin America and the Caribbean. The social movement around FLOSS is working in areas such as local resource use (human and technical) for the generation of their own solutions, as well as the transparent and effective use of public funds and international cooperation (for example, through the use of FLOSS in the public sector and social organisations). In Latin America and the Caribbean, the need for collective decisions regarding software that we use is apparent and, as there is less effective possibility of carrying out individual decisions, the educational system, public institutions and social organisations are key spaces in order to make these decisions. The true appropriation of knowledge, and the possibility of transforming the technology so that it is capable of helping to solve problems in the region, is a factor that has helped create the movement around FLOSS.

The relationship between this social movement with the existing networks of civil society organisations

In this context, it is of particular interest to us, to understand how the organisations dedicated to development are approaching the FLOSS movement, what is their 'point of entry' to the theme, what particular values and characteristics of the movement they identify with (for example, the collaborative creation, the use and free distribution of the knowledge products), and to what extent this identification affects its practical decisions, for example, in the decision to use FLOSS in a particular organisation. In particular, we are interested to understand, what bridges have been developed between the “technical” community and the development community, as well as the individuals who form those bridges based on their interests, expectations and experiences.

Currently, Bellanet LAC, is jointly elaborating, with the research partners, the instruments that will be used to collect information in the region. Beyond the collection of data for various concrete elements, there are additional themes that are worth observing, such as what the tendencies of the movement of FLOSS in the region are.

For example, the movement of FLOSS in Latin America and the Caribbean, at least in the more notable organisational structures, are conscious of social and political contexts and take stands in controversial debates, not only those related to FLOSS, but also those related to freedom of knowledge and the integration of Latin


American countries into the Information Society. Although, some groups of more technical orientation, prefer not to be identified with particular political positions, the movement of FLOSS in the region maintains common stands before certain topics, such as the regulation of intellectual property and governmental policies orientated toward the democratisation of the access to the technologies.

These organisations and individuals, do not only identify with the theme of FLOSS in itself, but also in many cases are working to move forward and to better understand the use of open contents in areas such as education, the arts and science. For example, FLOSS is connected with the Creative Commons Licenses (http://www.creativecommons.org), which allow for created material to be shared for non-commercial purposes and also provides liberties for the users and authors.

The subject of FLOSS has also driven the debate about 'Open Standards', mainly in relation to the format of public data managed by governmental institutions, and the possibility that open standards provide in procuring access to the information, independent of platforms and products. It is also being integrated into different sectors, including civil society organisations, in the debate of intellectual property laws that could affect not only the access to software, books and music, but to medicines and to the information generated from the natural resources of the region. Another important area is the ability of these groups, organised around concrete interests, to transfer the commons production model to the common property of knowledge products (such as software and books) which could also have an impact in the medium term on the poorer countries in other areas such as health and food security.

In this context, the study of the movement around FLOSS raises many expectations. One of the objectives of the second year of investigation is the creation of common agendas so that key stakeholders from diverse sectors can jointly put forward their ideas, capacities and projections regarding the future of the FLOSS movement in the region. As well as to understand, how to better take advantage of government and international cooperation efforts in order to ensure that FLOSS is utilised as a viable tool for economic and social development, as well as a means to participate in the broader discussion of developing countries in the Information Society.

 

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