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News >  Nation/World

Social forum touts free software for poor nations

Brazilian pop superstar and Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil kisses Grateful Dead lyricist John Barlow on Saturday during the World Social Forum.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Brazilian pop superstar and Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil kisses Grateful Dead lyricist John Barlow on Saturday during the World Social Forum. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Associated Press

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – Activists at a leftist gathering where Microsoft is viewed as a corporate bogeyman urged developing nations Saturday to leap into the information age with free open-source software.

In a packed warehouse where tens of thousands are attending the World Social Forum, Grateful Dead lyricist John Barlow said poor nations can’t solve their problems unless they stop paying expensive software licensing fees.

Open source software includes programs that are not controlled by a single company. The software can be developed by anyone with few restrictions. The best known such software is the Linux operating system, which can be downloaded free from the Internet.

“Already, Brazil spends more in licensing fees on proprietary software than it spends on hunger,” said Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a cyber civil liberties group.

Barlow said Brazil is trying to wean itself from Microsoft with a campaign to persuade Brazilians to shift from costly Windows products to applications that run on the Linux operating system.

Microsoft contends open-source software can be more expensive than Windows programs when service costs are factored in.

How much people spend on Microsoft products is unclear because the company often provides discounts when it senses it may lose business.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s administration says the open-source policy makes sense for a developing country where a mere 10 percent of the 182 million people have computers at home, and where the debt-laden government is the nation’s biggest computer buyer.

China, France, Germany, Japan and South Korea also are pursuing alternatives. In a partial response to the open-source threat and to piracy, Microsoft last year launched stripped-down, cheap versions of Windows in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Similar products are on the way for India and Russia.

Joining Barlow on Saturday were Brazilian pop superstar Gilberto Gil, who is Brazil’s minister of culture, and Lawrence Lessig, Stanford University law professor and chairman of Creative Commons, a nonprofit group devoted to sharing creative material online.

All the social forum’s 800 computers are running on open-source software, but the loosely organized event ran into an embarrassing glitch Saturday when two big screens betrayed the fact that the computer was running on Windows, with the operating system’s toolbar visible at the bottom of the screens.

Lessig noticed and the computer was quickly disconnected and replaced with a laptop running on open-source software.

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