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November 23, 2004

Brazil: Home of High Tech Left

Brazil's President, Lula, comes from a leftwing party, the Workers Party, but international financial constraints have prevented radical budgetary moves by the government

But in the realm of technology, Brazil is becoming a beacon of radical opposition to corporate intellectual property regimes.

As Wired magazine details, it started with AIDS:

In 1996, in response to Brazil's alarming rate of AIDS infection, the government of then-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso guaranteed distribution of the new retroviral drug cocktails to all HIV carriers in the country. Five years later, with the AIDS rate dropping, it was clear that the plan was wise but - at the prices being charged for the patented drugs in the cocktail, utterly unsustainable. Brazil's economy is the world's 10th largest, but it is also the world's most unequal, with 10 percent of the populationin control of almost half the wealth and more than 20 percent living in desperate poverty. Those are the sorts of figures that strain a government's budget even when it's not trying to stop the spread of AIDS.

Such was the arithmetic that led José Serra - economist, politician, and the man who set Brazil on its path toward IP independence - to take an interest in the topic. "I always found intellectual property boring," says Serra, appointed health minister under Cardoso in 1998. "Among economists, intellectual property isn't considered one of the noble questions." But with the drug patents standing between Serra and a functioning AIDS program, the problem took on a particular urgency.

His first approach was to go to the key patent holders, the US pharmaceutical giant Merck and the Swiss firm Roche, and ask for a volume discount. When the companies said no, Serra raised the stakes. Under Brazilian law, he informed them, he had the power in cases of national emergency to license local labs to produce patented drugs, royalty free, and he would use it if necessary. Merck immediately caved, but Roche stood its ground until August 2001, when Serra prepared to make good on his threat by drawing up the required paperwork. It was the first time a poor country had even come close to breaking a drug patent - and Roche, stunned, returned to the bargaining table with a newly cooperative attitude. In return for Serra's agreement to play nice, the drugmaker would reduce the price of its drug in Brazil to less than half what it was (and less than Brazil's cost to go it alone).

Now, the frontier is software and open source:
Every license for Office plus Windows in Brazil - a country in which 22 million people are starving - means we have to export 60 sacks of soybeans," says Marcelo D'Elia Branco, coordinator of the country's Free Software Project and liaison between the open source community and the national government, now headed by president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. "For the right to use one copy of Office plus Windows for one year or a year and a half, until the next upgrade, we have to till the earth, plant, harvest, and export to the international markets that much soy. When I explain this to farmers, they go nuts."

This analysis goes a long way toward explaining why the Lula government loves free software. Brazil's national IT policy these days can more or less be reduced to two words: Linux roolz. The prime directive of the federal Institute for Information Technology is to promote the adoption of free software throughout the government and ultimately the nation. Ministries and schools are migrating their offices to open source systems. And within the government's "digital inclusion" programs - aimed at bringing computer access to the 80 percent of Brazilians who have none - GNU/Linux is the rule.

It's one thing for a business to switch from Windows to Linux. It's quite another for a whole country. "We're not just discussing one product as opposed to another here - Ford versus Fiat," says Sérgio Amadeu da Silveira, the institute's director. "We're talking about different models of development."

And the movement to defy corporate control of software has gone international:
Already the outlines of an international open source alliance - a coalition of the penguin, if you will - have begun to emerge. India, for instance, is mustering a political commitment to free software that Stallman himself has declared second only to Brazil's. And at the last UN World Summit on the Information Society, Brazil led a bloc including India, South Africa, and China that thwarted an attempt by the US and its allies to harden the UN's line on intellectual property rights, insisting that the final conference document recognize just as strongly the cultural and economic importance of shared knowledge.
Here is the thing about high-tech radicalism in developing countries.

It doesn't cost money.

It just requires the government NOT to do things. Don't enforce US copyrights. Don't enforce US patents. The intellectual property wealth of Western countries will be redistributed to the poorest sectors of the world.

But more importantly, it then allows those countries to more immediately begin contributing to that global wealth of knowledge as full and equal participants. It's a radical vision coming out of Brazil.

Posted by Nathan at November 23, 2004 08:30 AM