Free Linux Software Bridges Brazil's Digital Divide

Fifty million Brazilian students will have Christmas in July when software Santa slips down the chimney to give them a free ticket on the information highway.
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Fifty million Brazilian students will have Christmas in July when software Santa slips down the chimney to give them a free ticket on the information highway.

With Microsoft software licenses costing up to 1000 percent more in Brazil than in the US, the ProInfo program launched by the government of president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva reduces dependence on costly foreign software just as the sugar ethanol program for cars reduces dependence on expensive foreign oil. The program, administered through the national education secretariat. provides free operating systems, backbone and educational content employing Linux, Debian and KD3 freeware.

At a time when new media evangelists are pushing Twitter as an in-school learning tool for young children, Brazil is building a strong education technology infrastructure that puts more emphasis on what kids learn in school than what they wear to school. In a low wage manufacturing economy like Brazil where moving from the working class to the middle class remains a struggle, working parents who do more with less can be confident that computer literacy is now a basic element of public education. The governments of China, India and Russia, all major trading partners of Brazil, are relying more on freeware to offset the credit crunch caused by the economic crisis. ProInfo is a test case for just how much space growing G 20 economies will allow globalism to have within the framework of their national interests. Brazil, the world's largest Roman Catholic country, elects a new president next year and providing kids with free access to a digital future adds value to the social contract between the individual and state, the foundation of the nation's democracy. Participation of the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro in the project is consistent with Rerum Novarum, the Papal encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII over a century ago that supports efforts to improve education and living standards of the poor and working families. A decade ago free software wasn't a priority for Brazil because the Internet was new, the government was struggling with the Latin debt crisis and PCs were affordable only to the wealthy. Then in one of those moments that streams away from historians, Brazil gained a modicum of countervailing power, dealing with the global pharmaceutical oligopoly in response to the AIDS pandemic.

President Fernando Enrique Cardoso of the neoconservative Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) supported the nation's large gay community by announcing that he would authorize Brazilian drug manufacturers to produce and distribute inexpensive generic versions of AIDS drugs without paying licensing fees if the global pharmaceutical manufacturers refused to bring their prices down. The pharmaceutical manufacturers backed down, creating an opening for Lula to make expensive imported software and Internet access for everyone issues in his successful 2002 presidential campaign.

According to the World Bank, Brazil's average per capita income when Lula took office was $3460 and there were fewer than 26 million Internet users. Today, per capita income has increased to $5910 and more than 67.4 million Brazilians now use the internet at home, work or through public access.

In the US, where Microsoft is currently headquartered, average per capita income is $44,700, nearly ten times that of Brazil. And while Microsoft sales in Brazil increased 50% last reporting year, the company still holds the Bill Gates view that nations advocating free software are a threat to open markets and the capitalist system. Prior to retiring, Gates attempted to reach out to Lula hoping that a private meeting between the two at the World Economic Forum in Davos would move the steelworker turned politician to accommodate Microsoft. According to a BBC report, the meeting, while scheduled, never happened.

It's not surprising then, that in yet another sign of the Obama administration outsourcing US diplomacy, the Carter Center online trip report for ex-president Jimmy Carter's recent visit to Brazil included meetings with Lula and three former presidents with "information laws" a key component of the agenda. Microsoft developed a robust market in Brazil because its software is bundled with PC packages offered by major retailers operating under oligopoly market conditions. But Pro Info and free online help from Brazil's large Linux community is causing that to change.

Surf over to Wal-Mart's slick Brazilian website and you'll find more Linux desktops and laptops being offered for less than PCs running Vista. At Casas Bahia, Brazil's favorite mall anchor store, Linux PC packages are the better buy. Ponto Frio, Carrefour, Magazines Luiza and even the snazzy French chain Fnac are selling Linux PCs at lower prices because there is no costly licensing fee to pass through to the consumer. With global retailers more open to marketing strategies that favor price over value Brazil's freeware strategy could serve as a model for those nations seeking to grow beyond the pathology of underdevelopment.

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