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A Revolution Saved By Hackers
Jamais Cascio, 9 Feb 06

linuxve.pngIn an ideal world, the first country to wholly embrace free/libre/open source software (FLOSS) as a tool for economic and social change would be one that also embraced entirely free/open political discourse. Sadly, we don't live in an ideal world, and the spearhead of an open source revolution may well be Venezuela under Hugo Chavez. We posted last month about Venezuela's law requiring government agencies to transition to FLOSS over a two year period. Now GNU software engineer David Sugar, in a report for Technology & Change, provides more details about Venezuela's adoption of open source technology -- as well as why Chavez owes his continued office to computer hackers.

The appeal of FLOSS to developing nations is clear and simple: the software can be legally acquired free of cost; the lack of proprietary ownership means that users are not tied to a single company (likely located in the US or Europe); most importantly, the code is open, meaning that it can be modified to meet local needs and that citizens can learn programming and technical skills working with the software. It's a powerful argument, one that can be heard around the world. It's hardly surprising, then, that nations seeking to break out of the "Washington Consensus" would find FLOSS so captivating.

Sugar describes Venezuela's two economic ministries. The first, the old ministry of economics, handles traditional business issues, most (aside from farms and, as we'll see, the oil industry) having been left untouched by the government. The second is the People's Economic Ministry, popularly known as Minep. It is primarily tasked with managing the cooperative training of laborers, and has a strong focus on technology. All of the computer systems in the training cooperatives run open source software, including voice over IP services.

A bigger development is the transformation of what had been the ministry of intellectual property, known as SAPI, into an organization with a much more forward-looking agenda.

I had the good fortune to meet the current director general of SAPI, Eduardo Saman, while I was in Maracaibo. He has very different ideas for the purpose of SAPI. He is a well known internationalist, and had been a key person in establishing the program for promoting a developing nations agenda within WIPO. Rather than creating new intellectual restrictions, Saman proposes that the mission of SAPI should instead become that of promoting “Intellectual Prosperity” by creating laws and services that promote the ability to share knowledge as the common heritage of all mankind.

Sugar's observations about the role of the oil industry in Venezuela are interesting for two reasons. The first, and more obvious, reason is that sabotage of the state oil company's Microsoft-based computer systems by the former managers in 2002 very nearly derailed the Chavez revolution; local computer hackers managed to break through the security of the systems, and restore control to the new government. This experience was the direct catalyst for Venezuela's decision to move aggressively to an open source environment -- never again will proprietary code be used to lock out the government (and, it occurs to me, never again would hackers so easily break the systems' security...).

The second reason is a bit more subtle, but even more notable. According to Sugar:

...even though Venezuela posses one of the largest known reserves of oil, they expect world oil production to begin declining and see this wealth as very temporary. Socorro Hernendez said PDVSA [the state oil company] believes that nobody will “burn” oil (as for example in automobiles) in as little as 20 years. He also said they believe that, while oil will remain important to the multitude of other industries in which it is used, the price will settle to $5 a barrel, so now is not only the best, but also the last, chance to create something useful from this wealth.

That is to say, another reason why Venezuela is trying to shift to a more information and information-technology-based economy is its recognition of both peak oil and the imminent global shift away from fossil fuels.

There's much to admire about what Venezuela is attempting with free/libre/open source software, but we should bear in mind that all aspects of the society are not as open as the code. WorldChanging alum Taran Rampersad, in the comments to my earlier post about Venezuela, observes that the open source code in Venezuela has different "forks" depending upon political faction; another commenter, "Reste@dos," notes that the embrace of open source doesn't extend to the voting machines, which continue to use proprietary code, available only to the government. As much as I'm in favor of leapfrog nations seeking out new economic and political models, I'm hesitant to give my support to political figures who find it easier to jail dissidents than debate them.

Still, this is not an ideal world. Even if I'm skeptical about Chavez, I'm watching the changes in Venezuela with fascination. If we're lucky -- the global we, including (especially) the people of Venezuela -- the ideals of openness and free (libre) ideas embedded in the software will find new purchase in the society, as well.

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Comments

So how is it again that Chavez owes his continued office to computer hackers? "... as well as why Chavez owes his continued office to computer hackers..."

I read the whole article, but that teaser was just that, a teaser.


Posted by: Carthik on 9 Feb 06

Jamais:

You wrote that in an ideal world, the first country to wholly embrace open-source software would be one that also embraced entirely free/open political discourse. You also seem to suggest that you are having a hard time fully celebrating Venezuela's move because of the politics of its leader.

I think it's the beauty of our world, though, that it doesn't operate so linearly. Innovation can come from anywhere. Customers you never anticipated can find uses for your products--and push you into new realms. Communities can leverage ideas from one space and apply them to improve another. It seems to me that this is actually a critical element to the successful growth and spread of new ideas and technologies -- and indeed it's how the open-source movement has produced such a robust product: by having so many diverse minds and interests apply their genius to a common problem and take it in directions that never would have been imagined if all working on it thought alike. In fact, you might look at it this way: this is the kind of inter-breeding that produces the fittest offspring (as opposed to the sickly ones that often result from intra-breeding). It's the nature of the world that good outcomes don't always have equally noble birth parents. And vice versa. (Though, of course, there are probably more people around the world who object to our, the United States', leader than who object to Chavez, but I'll leave that unnecessary digression for another time.)

What's important is that, for whatever reason, open societies around the world haven't been able to bring themselves to adopt open-source software whole-heartedly. But perhaps once Venezuela, and a few other nations, have shown that it's possible, have worked out the kinks, and have gained competitive advantage from it, I imagine we'll be joining the bandwagon pretty darn quick.


Posted by: Irma on 9 Feb 06

Carthik, you may have missed this: sabotage of the state oil company's Microsoft-based computer systems by the former managers in 2002 very nearly derailed the Chavez revolution; local computer hackers managed to break through the security of the systems, and restore control to the new government. This experience was the direct catalyst for Venezuela's decision to move aggressively to an open source environment -- never again will proprietary code be used to lock out the government (and, it occurs to me, never again would hackers so easily break the systems' security...).

Irma, good observation. I hope you're right.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 10 Feb 06

My opinion is that engineers, scientists and technicians always do better in open, democratic and prosperous societies.

This why I enthusiastically support the adoption of OSS by developing countries. I view OSS as a kind of long-term, subtle and beneficially subversive trojan horse.

Some of countries, Venezuela, Brazil or China for example, might adopt OSS for vague patriotic reasons, as a way of freeing themselves from the large software and hardware companies in the postindustrial world, and cost reasons. At the same time however, the use OSS leads to improvements in local education and in the local economy. This indirectly and slowly leads to liberalization in local politics. That's a good thing.

One wonders how much the arrival of the personal computer contributed to the opening, reform and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in the mid 80s. It's my opinion that societies can't adopt these technologies without being changed profoundly by them.


Posted by: Pace Arko on 10 Feb 06

Hi. One interesting thing i will like to add recently SAPI organized a parallel event to the Foro Social Mundial, it was a tent in the middle of the city called the trollparty. you can check: http://caracas.trollparty.org/tiki-index.php?page=People&bl what i will like to really know is how much of this can be leaded by local iniciatives, from the title of this article i was expecting to read more about that "local" venezuelan knowledge, it's more than good that they are striving for it but i was really optimistic, perhaps thinking on the strong brazilian hackers...anyway this word hacker might be understood in a wide variety of ways. ((i'm leaving a cocomment, in case you will like to continue this conversation)) Cheers! /bk


Posted by: botanik on 10 Feb 06

Hi Cascio,

Yeah, this is not a ideal world; we're not ideal citizens. Your is an
ideal article? Perhaps not, but all of them all REAL - you do the move,
and make the article, congratulations. So, let's give a look in real
arguments:

- we agree: FLOSS bring us closer to our desired world, perhaps not yet
the ideal.
- we disagree: one step forward is all we can do, only one at a time.
Waiting until an ideal democracy comes up to FLOSS adoption is a ultra-
conservative discourse, perhaps devoted to say NO FOREVER to FLOSS.

- we agree: the world should think again in new and alternative economic
and political models. Our world isn't ideal, but we no longer deserve
the Bush's binary political system - "or you is with us or you is
against us".
- we disagree: the matter isn't give our support to Chavez. The matter
is say not to ALL of them who prefer "to jail dissidents than debate
them". Dissidents comes in all flavors, even foreigners... so comes the
prisions, like Guantánamo or even hidden and denied.


Posted by: Agostinho Rosa on 10 Feb 06

Yes, I missed it while reading. One thing about feed readers is that the content all looks the same, and somehow makes things more difficult to read...

Sorry about that, and thank you for the clarification.


Posted by: Carthik on 10 Feb 06

Oh great, more ammo for Bill Gates "open source = communist" meme!


Posted by: Ell Small on 10 Feb 06

I have to speak up in defense of Hugo Chavez. The difficulty with the media in Venezuela is that there are funds coming in from the U.S. and from what is left of the neoliberal elitists to promote propaganda against the government. What Chavez is doing is revolutionary. He has the broad support of the venezuelan population. I draw your attention to this website which has a great deal of analysis of what is happening in Venezuela. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/

Finally, there is a great movie called 'the revolution will not be televised' which shows in detail how the media in Venezuela turned out false stories that helped the CIA backed coup in 2002. Remember, this is about oil and about control through neoliberal policies. Remember Iraq? US's policies aren't confined to that region of the world.

Jeremy Kirouac


Posted by: Jeremy Kirouac on 10 Feb 06

I have to ask where specifically Venezuela is less open or democratic than the developed countries?
The constitution can't be meant, as it has more options for direct democracy than e.g. the german (which is widely considered very progressive) or of course the US-American one. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_Venezuela)

The economic system is less exclusive than that of most 'open' societies. The poverty rate declines. Access to Health care has widely improved...

I would suggest to not solely rely on US-American mass media for information on declared Enemies of the State (See e.g. the press coverage on the Iraq an Afghanistan wars, which was at least in part more differentiated in Europe than in the U.S.)

This is not meant to ignore the problems HWR illustrates. I have not read the new media law, but I suspect it tries to deal whith problems like the one illustrated in the bottom image in this article: deliberate falsification of information published in media owned by the economically leading class (which of course opposes the wealth distrbution towards the poor).


Posted by: Mattes on 11 Feb 06

Nobody has said this explicitly, but just to be clear: in no way does my concern about the Chavez government's apparent suppression of dissent translate into giving a free pass to the variety of reprehensible actions taken by the US government (whether the current administration or administrations past).

There are far more abusive states than Venezuela, even if the full range of problems listed by Human Rights Watch turned out to be true. But when an institution adopts technologies that embody the concept of open, collaborative participation, any effort to suppress open, collaborative political participation is worth noting.

(For what it's worth, here's Amnesty International's page on Venezuela, too.)


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 11 Feb 06

For what it's worth, that AI pages spanned four years and cointained surprisingly few reports, considering the at times volitale situation in the country. As someone who has lived in Venezuela, I can say that although Chavez is not perfect, he is doing tremendous good; I would also suggest that if you are in the U.S., you focus your concern more on your own leadership, with regards particulalry to the massive corruption, abuse and civillian killings taking place in the middle east (i.e., not only Iraq). I can only assume that Mr. Chavez's anti-capitalist stance upsets your business side.

Here are the pages for the United States, quite a bit more active:

http://web.amnesty.org/library/eng-usa/index

http://www.hrw.org/doc/?t=usa


Posted by: IN on 13 Feb 06

IN, your assumption would be wrong, at least as regards WorldChanging.

I suspect that you'd find much more agreement with you about US policies among WorldChanging writers than you seem to imagine. Although we are explicitly not a political weblog, a moment's search through the archives would come up with myriad examples of posts calling for greater transparency, pointing out corruption, and emphasizing the need for human rights-centered policies in the US government. Where you'd find disagreement is in the implication that until one's own society is perfected, critical observations of other societies is off-limits.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 13 Feb 06



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