Brazil’s Gutsy and Spirited War Against Microsoft

Brazilian program to offer computer for the masses: PC Conectado - PC ConnectedAfter five months of  being unemployed, Catarine Fernandes, 25, applied for a secretary job opening. She passed the first selection phase, doing better than many other applicants. But in the second phase, she failed the computer literacy test. “It was embarrassing because I could not even utilize the mouse,” she remembers.

Catarine has a high school diploma and was taking classes to prepare her for the university entrance exam before she lost her receptionist job. She had to put aside her project to enter into a university because she had no salary. She needed to take a computer skills course, but could not afford it.

It was then that a friend told her  that  the  Unified Educational Center (CEU) Butantã, near her house in the west region of São Paulo, was offering free computer classes.

“I did not waste time and soon registered myself. Now I master basic skills and, today, I have an e-mail account and know how to navigate the Internet,” said Catarine.

She still has not been able to find a job, but has written her résumé by herself and, whenever possible, she goes to the Telecentro to search for job openings posted online.

The story of this lower class mother resident of São Paulo is a common one through the 124 Telecentro program units spread around the capital of São Paulo’s periphery.

There are 20 computers freely available to users in each unit. Access is free, the only requirement is previous registration. Introductory courses that teach how a computer works and how to work with it are taught to those who are computer illiterate.

On the other hand, those who know their way around a computer have the opportunity to perfect their skills learning how to program and create websites.

Economic Question

The initiative developed by the São Paulo city hall during Marta Suplicy’s mandate attended 535 thousand people in 4 years – half of which were under twenty years of age.

This digital inclusion experience was marked by a particular trait. Since its beginning, all of the computers were equipped with free or open source software, i.e. computer programs whose source code is open and that do not charge users a license fee.

This technology was adopted due to “economic and philosophic reasons,” as the Electronic Government Coordinator until 2004, Beatriz Tibiriçá, explains.

“We diminished maintenance and equipment costs besides saving the expense of buying licenses. And the best is that we can share developed solutions and adequate the applications to the exact necessities of the Telecentro programs.”

By using free software, like the widespread Linux, an operating system that competes with Microsoft’s Windows, São Paulo’s city hall saved around US$ 8.5 million annually that would have gone towards the payment of royalties, had they adopted proprietary software.

Beatriz adds that the economic advantage does not end there because the Telecentros have only one complete computer that works as a server. The other nineteen machines do not have a hard drive, but work within a network, a fact that considerably reduces the initial investment.

“The administration is entirely done through the Internet. Instead of managing 2,000 machines, I control only 124 servers. This would not be possible with a proprietary software which can only operate machines containing a hard drive,” informs Beatriz.

The method used to choose the location of the program units is another characteristic of the Telecentros. The choice of communities to host the units was done based on the area’s Human Development Index (IDH), favoring needier neighborhoods.

The beneficiaries were people such as Maicon Dias Lopes who does not have a computer at home, in the far west of São Paulo. “A neighbor told me that there was a computer course at the Telecentro and I became interested,” recalls the fifteen-year-old.

He took a course, liked it and decided to take more classes. Maicon got so involved that he ended up becoming a course monitor and, today, he teaches new students how to use a computer.

“I stay here fours hours a day, I want to know more about html (website language),” notes Maicon.

Despite being positive, experiences such as these are far from being an adequate answer to the real needs of the population.

Brazil is already known for social inequality and the model brought by the information society only deepens the exclusion that already exists.

However, this reality is far from being insuperable. This is what the story of Vanessa Pereira, a 27-year-old woman who has paralysis in one leg, shows.

At the end of last year, she learned that a telemarketing company had a vacancy for disabled individuals. Vanessa, articulate and communicative,  applied for the job and got an interview.

The only problem was that she was computer illiterate. “She then told me that the job would be mine if I took an intensive computer course,” tells Vanessa.

Vanessa researched prices in many schools and concluded that she could not afford any of them. Then she was informed that the Telecentro Effort/Acessibilidade Total offered free classes to special need individuals.

She went to the center where she was able to count on the instructors’ solidarity.  She completed the course in ten days and got her first job.

Proud of her achievement, Vanessa typed her story in a Telecentro text editor program and took many copies which she posted throughout public places. “I never gave up fighting. I wanted to take this example to other people who, sometimes, lose hope,” she tells.

Public Policies

In Brazil, only 15% of dwellings (7,5 million residences) possess a computer, according to 2003 data from the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics). A smaller percentage has Internet access: 11% (5,6 million domiciles).

If we consider family earnings, the inequality jumps to the eyes. Around 70% of 1,9 million homes with earnings above twenty minimum salaries have Internet access.

On the other end, only 5% of the 41,5 million dwellings with proceeds totaling a maximum of 10 minimum salaries are connected to the worldwide web.

“Today, one of the social exclusion types is digital. Whoever is not in this technological context is deprived of an important means to access information and knowledge,” analyses Marcelo Branco, developer of the Free Software Brazil project and consultant for the presidency on digital information issues.

This opinion is shared by the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells, author of “The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture,” mandatory reference for academics and researchers of the new technologies.

During the World Social Forum, which took place in Porto Alegre, state of Rio Grande do Sul, in the south of Brazil, on 26th-31st of January, he stressed the importance of preserving expression and communication freedoms in the Internet, reminding that the inexistence of proprietary right and bureaucratic control allowed the evolution of the world web.

At the forum, which was marked by exclusive use of free software, Castells defended this technology as a form to allow the improvement of knowledge.

According to Castells, this resource’s very history shows that there can be more technological innovation and economic productivity in a context of motivated and cooperative work.

Seeking to increase people’s access to information, the federal government intends to launch the project PC Conectado (Connected PC), which through subsidized production enables the sale of reasonably-priced computers. Despite the low price these will be high-performance machines with multimedia resources such as a CD reader.

In order to acquire the equipment, those interested will pay R$ 50 reais (US$ 20) monthly for one year. The consumer will also gain free Internet access while paying for the computer. The project is ambitious and the most pessimistic estimate is that sales might reach one million units.

The federal government also plans to open public centers of Internet access in poor regions of the country, above all in big cities’ peripheries, benefiting class D and E families.

Named Casa Brasil (Brazil House),  the project has the same structure as the Telecentros with the addition of video  and audio production centers and community radio programs. The idea is to stimulate cultural activity in these communities.

In the beginning of 2005, the National Congress approved a supplementary amendment in the Union Budget that sets aside US$ 90 million for the establishment of Casa Brasil.

One thousand units are predicted to be built – still a long way from the needs of the Brazilian population.

Just to have an idea, the resources reserved to the project represent around 0.28% of the saving of public expenses done by the federal government in 2004 in order to pay the debt (the primary surplus). Anyhow, the first phase target is to reach at least three million people.

Both of these initiatives have more in common than combating digital exclusion: both will exclusively use free software. “There is no way to talk about a digital inclusion plan that uses proprietary software. The legalization of the programs would more than double the investments,” informs Branco.

It is estimated that Brazil spends 1,27 billion reais (half a million dollars) in Microsoft royalties alone.

“The cost of a Microsoft Office and Windows license equals 60 soy sacks or 23 petroleum barrels. If we had a large expansion in the number of users, our harvest of grains would possibly be insufficient,” compares the consultant.

Another reason for this choice is the adequacy of the free software to the inclusion proposal.

“The free software gives the user four liberties: to use it for any end, to study it profoundly – having access to its source code -, to alter it and, still, to distribute these modified versions,” explains the sociologist Amadeu da Silveira, president of the National Institute of Technology and Information (ITI), which coordinates the Casa Brasil project.

According to Amadeu, this option opens doors to Brazilian programmers to improve their skills.  “Free software development is done collaboratively, internationally shared, but each local participation is made present. Therefore, it is a great tool for the country to acquire a larger space in the information society,” declares Amadeu.

The Brazilian Stand

Since 2003, the backing of free software has been one of the strategic policies of the Brazilian government in the information society area. Brasília understands that this resource opens a perspective to the countries in the margins of capitalism to develop themselves and become competitive in the coveted niche of information technology, which today occupies central place in the amassing of capital in the world.

This posture, however, has generated resistance from mostly rich countries. It was what happened the first time Brazil presented its defense of free software in an international forum, during the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which gathered government, civil society and private sector representatives.

The first phase of this summit took place in Geneva, Switzerland, in December 2003, and made clear the existence of two blocks.

One of them reunited peripheral countries (Brazil, India, South Africa, China and Argentina) which defended free software dissemination as an opportunity for these nations to overcome their technological backwardness and promote an inclusive information society.

The other block, led by the United States, European Union and Japan did not accept discussion of this issue and wanted to make intellectual property laws more stringent. This group also rejected a proposal to create a fund within the U.N. destined to finance technological projects in poor countries.

“There is a clear dispute. In one side, there are the powerful economic-financial interests of those who want to make of the Internet a space solely devoted to keep watch and sell. On the other side there is the citizen willing to turn the world wide web into a space of information exchange, making it possible to access knowledge and culture,” says Marcelo Branco who participated in the meeting as an observer from the civil society.

The outcome of this clash will be seen in the next phase of the world meeting, scheduled to be in Tunis, Tunisia, in December 2005.

Meanwhile, the Brazilian government tries to rally the greatest number of countries around its proposal and has already realized informal consultations with China, Russia, South Africa and India with the intention to establish an alliance in favor of the project.

The Foreign Ministry, the Itamaraty,  also initiated a discussion with Latin American countries to secure regional support for the proposal and is still trying to convince Spain and Portugal to adopt the same position, since many European Nations use the free software technology in public organs to save money.

The United States, host country of the majority of the large proprietary software’s companies, have already shown concern, so much so that they try to mine this initiative expressing the wish to be invited to participate in a reunion scheduled to take place in mid-2005.

The meeting, which will discuss the subject, is  exclusive for Latin American countries. The North American Government still wants a meeting with Brazilian representatives in Geneva, before the end of the World Summit.

Open vs. Closed

Free Software:  Computer program developed by users in an open community whose philosophy is to enable free exchange of knowledge. It is utilized without charge of royalties and allows users access to its internal structure as well as the possibility to modify its characteristics. It can also be distributed.

Proprietary Software:  These are closed computer programs. The user has no access to its source code and royalties are charged for their use. Whoever possess a copy, at home or work, and does not pay anything to use it is committing piracy crime. Examples of proprietary software: Windows, Microsoft Office, Photoshop and Access.

Source Code: a software is a set of mathematical formulas and codified algorithms in a way that the computer may execute them. The source code is the language that allows the programmer to communicate with the machine.

Key Words

Linux: Also known as GNU/Linux, this free software is a computer operating system like Windows. Its basic structure was developed in 1991 by the Finlander Linus Torvalds in his spare time. Programmers from all over the world, working as a community, later improved the initial software through the GNU project, launched in 1984 by the Free Software Foundation in the United States.

Distributions: Packages of programs added to the basic structure of GNU/Linux. It is also possible to download from the Internet some of these distributions. Examples:
Conectiva – www.conectiva.com.br
Mandrake – www.mandrakelinux.com
Debian – www.debian.org

Open Office: free software developed by international communities of programmers in open code. It has text editors, slide shows, html and spreadsheets – www.openoffice.org.

Mozilla/Firefox: Internet browsers, agile and safe – www.mozilla.org.

Gimp: Treatment and Manipulation of images program – www.gimp.org.

More information about the Project GNU/Free Software Foundation – www.gnu.org.

This article was originally published by Problemas Brasileiros magazine. – www.sescsp.org.br/sesc/revistas.

Translated by Aldo de Paula Jansel. He is a Brazilian student in Florida, USA, deeply interested in Brazilian politics. You may reach him at rednose431@hotmail.com.

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