President Lula of Brazil receives ITU Award, Open Source Software cited (updated)

There’s a lot of good news that does not always reach me at my desk in a single hop. But when I travel around the world, the good news of the region I’m visiting has a way of finding me, such as the news that the ITU has bestowed the World Telecommunication and Information Society Award on President Lula of Brazil. Congratulations, Mr. President!

President Lula’s acceptance speech is instructive, as it specifically calls out the social benefits of free and open source software (original Portuguese, [with English translation bracketed], emphasis mine):

Além disso, o software de código aberto e livre é essencial para a construção de uma sociedade da informação inclusiva, centrada na pessoa e voltada para o desenvolvimento. [Furthermore, open-source and free (livre) software is essential to building an inclusive information society, focusing on the person and dedicated to development.] Os programas brasileiros de inclusão digital e de governo eletrônico utilizam o software aberto e livre. [The Brazilian programs for digital inclusion and e-government use software that is open source and free (livre).] Essa opção reduz custos e permite a construção de ambiente digital seguro e favorável à troca de experiências e conhecimentos. [This reduces costs and allows the construction of the digital environment safe and conducive to exchange experiences and knowledge.]

I am fairly confident that Lula was talking about “open source software”, not the more vague, and often meaningless term, “open software”, because his speech makes that clear. And, happily, I will likely be able to ask the question directly, because I’m going to have a chance to meet members of the President’s office at FISL. FISL is the Fórum Internacional Software Livre, and it is amazing. The OSI has been sending representatives to FISL since 2005, and this will be my third visit. I have been to many open source conferences, some more technically focused (like LinuxTag), some more general (like OSCON), but none in all the world seem to draw the equal parts of community, commercial, and real government participation like FISL.

Two years ago, in and around FISL, I met with the person charged with solving the “Digital inclusion” problem (what we in the USA call the “digital divide”). The OLPC and open source software were central concepts in their work, and now that work is earning the recognition of the international community. Again, congratulations!

For those who would like to see what success looked like before it was recognized by the ITU, check out this video that Red Hat produced showing some early and amazing results.

The open source revolution in South America has a very different flavor in South America that in does in North America, Europe, Japan, China, or Australia for that matter. In those regions, open source is treated like just another choice in the marketplace, as if the future matters not at all, only the present. There are certainly plenty of verifiable examples of just how much better open source can be than proprietary software today. But in Peru, Brazil, Argentina, as well as Malaysia, the Philippines, and especially India, there’s a sense that if one makes a convenient choice today that leads to absolute ruin in the future, then public officials should look for a different choice that will lead to a better future. This is what Peruvian Congressman Edgar Villanueva did when he wrote his famous rebuttal to Microsoft back in 2002, which cleared the way for Law 28612, permitting the use of Open Source software in public adminstration. It is why Malaysia has established an Open Source Competency Center and is now seeing real returns from that initial investment. It is what the Indian state of Kerela did by recognizing that they needed to reorganize their educational system and IT curriculum to be more consistent with their age-old cultural values of sharing knowledge.

Brazil has realized that you cannot win the game if you accept that somebody else will always control the ball. Brazil has looked into the future, and decided to place investments where it can play the ball on terms that a fair: open knowledge, open standards, and open source. Bravo!