Yesterday, Microsoft MSN (Spain) featured a montage photo of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and the ex president of Cuba, Fidel Castro, wearing king's crowns, accompanied by the colourful title, "When power corrupts: Striving to be kings." The Venezuelan government and a grassroots technology movement here are both promoting the use and creation of open source (free) software, so it's no surprise that software tyrant, Microsoft, is lambasting Chavez.
Following the MSN headline was a slide show of photos of nine world leaders with paragraphs accompanying each, describing just how undemocratic and power hungry they all are. All of the leaders bar two are from Latin America or East Asia, reflecting the racist sentiment that the "West" is democratic perfection. Also, perhaps just a coincidence, East Asia and Latin America are regions with some of the strongest open source software movements.
Ironically, of the two Western leaders featured, the king of Spain is the one leader of the whole bunch who wasn't in any way elected, whilst the other, Napoleon, is long dead.
The paragraph accompanying Chavez's photo read, "Hugo Chavez is in it for the long run. He has touched up laws at his whim and for his own interest. And why not, he did the same with the constitution that he devised in 1999 but in which he made one mistake: term limits. After his first election (1999) and the two after that (2001 and 2007), the law hasn't allowed him the option of running again as president. And instead of accepting that, he changed the law."
First of all, MSN, do your research. The last presidential election was in 2006, not 2007. Secondly, the commentary does not mention that the constitution (created by a constitutional assembly with members elected by the public) and the constitutional amendment were both approved by popular referendum.
MSN, the default home page for Microsoft Internet Explorer, and a hub page of Microsoft services such as Hotmail, Messenger, downloads, "news", a search engine, advertisements and so on, is just an extension, or a facilitator, of the Microsoft software and technology empire.
It is hard to miss the irony of such an unaccountable, billion dollar, US based multinational corporation which monopolises its industry, calling a president who has held 15 elections (amendments, referendums, recalls, regional elections and so on) in 10 years, a wannabe king.
Microsoft, founded in 1975 by current billionaire Bill Gates, and Paul Allen, is the producer of Microsoft Windows, Word, Explorer, Messenger, and so on. It has risen to dominance by patenting products frequently based on other people's work or on common, global ideas. It monopolises the computer world through its ownership of the operating system Windows, and through a strategy of program compatibility. Then it multiplies its profits by convincing (and obliging) program users to buy upgrades every few years.
In 1994 Microsoft's operating system was driving 93% of the world's desktops, and its software- 90% of the market. The company has, what basically amounts to, tyrannical control over software, and by extension, computers, the internet, and modern communication. It's domination of information- how it is accessed, produced, processed, and organised, is dangerous.
The open source software movement is challenging such domination. The movement, which developed Linux, the free operating system, for example, sees information as vital to human development and something that should not be for profit, but rather for personal development, awareness, and expression. Software is a social creation rather than a private creation, where users around the world can add code to code, and fix bugs on a daily basis rather than via regular, purchasable, upgrades.
Edgar Gutierrez, a software activist in Merida, Venezuela, said technology is simply, "the extension of the capacity of man" and argued that it shouldn't be limited to first world countries or those who can afford to pay $100 for a program in order to design, write, express, photograph, use the internet, communicate, translate, learn languages or maths or science. He said, "When [software] is not free, there is a massive inequality of power."
Leandro Leon, also from Merida, Venezuela, speaking to alternative media, described the four freedoms of open source software, freedoms denied by private software like that made by Microsoft:
- The freedom to use the program for whatever you want (Licensed software generally stipulates what the program should be used for).
- The freedom to study the program.
- The freedom to modify it, that is- to improve it, add to the coding and get rid of bugs.
- The freedom to distribute the program.
Leon argues that Linux, a system developed by many people, is a far superior a system to Windows. "The lack of restrictions makes it possible for many people to participate," he said, "like the difference between solving a problem alone or in a group." When lots of people are involved, they discover the bugs and fix them much quicker as well, Leon argued. "A private model doesn't work like that."
In September 2004 the Venezuelan government announced its decision to switch all public administration and national industry over to open source software. Chavez explained the move was for "national scientific independence, so that we do not depend on privately owned software. If knowledge does not have owners, then intellectual property is a trap set by neo-liberalism." The change over will also save the government a lot of money on software purchasing, money which can be put to better use on social programs, health, and education.
However, getting whole sections of administration to change over their operating systems and programs is not an easy process, and at last count, the aim was to have 50% of public administration using free software by 2007.
The government has also set up the National Centre for Development and Research of Open Source Technology (CENDITEL), which has centres dedicated to creating open source software, training in open source software creation, organising its distribution, and promoting awareness around its use, among other things. It has organised technology fairs where locals can bring their computers and have Linux installed for free.
However, clearly it's not useful to talk about open source software when computers are still too expensive for the majority of the world's population. To combat this, since 2000 the government has been constructing ‘infocentres', places with up to 80 computers, located in the barrios, in rural and isolated areas, and city centres. These centres also often offer free computer training and internet access, and there are currently almost 700 such centres across the country.
Now that's democratic.