First Monday

Free software: Some Brazilian translations

We examine two histories in this paper. First, we briefly look at a North American history, in which we look at the relationship of free software with the founding principles of democracy. Second, we examine recent Brazilian history, especially the most policy decision to adopt free software, affirming technological autonomy. Democratic ideals, defended by the free software movement, are transformed in Brazilian politics, leading both to further free software development and a stronger democracy.


When democracy takes the open road
Free software translations
Brazilian translations revisited





In this paper, we first sketch an interpretation of North American history in which we attempt to develop connections between the free software development and the founding principles of democracy. Akin to Walt Whitman’s "grass fields of the world," Jack Kerouac’s libertarian road, and the counterculture’s dream of computers to the people, free software expresses democratic ideals of citizenship by affirming individual rights and freedom. Notably, the history of the GNU project provides evidence of a defense of those ideals.

Second, we examine recent Brazilian history in which we intend to verify how, from the beginning of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva’s Presidency of Brazil in January 2003, adopting free software became an important government strategy for stimulating economic growth and affirming technological autonomy. Free software in the new government is the focus of a variety of policies for national development. IT policy change is possible because the federal government is one of largest purchasers of software and hardware in the country. With an interest and focus on free software, the state is, in a sense, creating a new market to encourage the development and use of this software. These actions are reminiscent of governmental policies in the 1970s and 1980s, which attempted to stimulate the minicomputer market [1].

Finally, we will argue that the Brazilian government, through its intervention with specific policies aimed at encouraging the use of free software, encourages democratic ideals and the building of a stronger democracy.



When democracy takes the open road

"Afoot and light–hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good–fortune, I myself am good–fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road."
"Song of The Open Road" — Walt Whitman

"For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you ma femme!
For you, for you I am trilling these songs."
"For you, O Democracy" — Walt Whitman

"To drive free! to love free! to dash reckless and dangerous!"
"One Hour To Madness and Joy" — Walt Whitman

"I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals (...)
Not one is demented with the mania of owning things."
"Song From Myself" — Walt Whitman

"I’m the last survivor of a dead culture."
Richard Stallman, quoted in Levy (1994)

Walt Whitman is one of the greatest North American poets. His book Leaves of Grass (Whitman, 1982), is considered a great tribute to democracy. It was published while the United States was still experiencing its growth pains, developing its own identity in a variety of ways.

To Whitman, democracy is the creative force of a new world. Democracy seemed a form of society based on "natural" facts and by itself scientifically justifiable, indeed a supposed absolute negation of social fairy tales, superstitions and obscure traditions. Whitman’s visions about society were not limited to just a North American reality. In a society idealized by Whitman, democracy would spread out like grass covering the world, a planetary metaphor supporting the supranational scope of a democratic experience.

"This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe."
"Song From Myself" — Walt Whitman

In his poetry, Whitman exults the individual, freed from religious and political conditionings. In his article "Democratic vistas," he extends this individualistic view, explaining that citizens would move away from the confines of political parties, since individual political acts, not parties, make for a strong democracy.

"Owning no law but their own will, more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood, the perfect equality of the States, the ever–overarching American ideas, it behooves you to convey yourself implicitly to no party, nor submit blindly to their dictators, but steadily hold yourself judge and master over all of them."
"Democratic vistas" — Walt Whitman (1982)

True democracy, that is democracy for those who would find it on their own, was truly on the open road.

In On The Road (1984), Jack Kerouac expresses a romantic ideal, eager for simplicity and marked by an absence of pretension, to live an intense and fully individualistic experience. Kerouac mixes the individualism of American culture, a recurrent theme in Walt Whitman’s poetry, with a mechanical extension of this freedom, in the form of the automobile. For Kerouac, the freedom of the open road translated into emancipation and a search for oneself. The open road became the means to free the soul from the confinements of a consumer–based, Cold War society.

How do computers fit into this picture? Paul Edwards (1996) describes how computers emerged from military efforts during the Cold War. Cold War politics necessitated a central computer, serving the military as a tool to support a fail–safe command and control system. At the same time, the computer itself would result in what Edwards calls "a closed world" [2] discourse, with strong investments by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in projects at laboratories belonging to universities, research institutes, and specific defense industries.

Advanced computers were largely resources limited to those facilities with connections to the military establishment. Theodore Roszak (1988) suggests that anti–militarism, mobilized by the Vietnam War, eventually encouraged the idea of democratizing and humanizing technology, including computers.

In the middle of the 1970s, some members of the hacker community (born in academia), joined forces with hobbyists to create software and hardware for what we now know as personal computers. The possibility of creating a domestic computer, together with the idea that anyone could build it, quickly granted to the computer an aura of libertarian technology.

These early personal computers were being constructed at the crossing of two discourses, a closed one from the Cold War, and another found in Whitman and Kerouac, a discourse for an open and libertarian world. These conflicting themes over closed and open technologies have repeatedly been in conflict for the past few decades.

The architecture of the earliest personal computers attracted a number of individuals to develop programs for a variety of purposes for these devices. Much of the software was originally freely shared among hackers and hobbyists; it quickly transformed into a consumer good, protected by copyright, non–disclosure agreements, and other devices.

After being a victim of a secrecy agreement and witnessing the decline of the hacker community at MIT, Richard Stallman began to encourage a new blossoming of the hacker community. He launched GNU (GNU’s Not Unix), an operating system. He defined GNU as free software, preserving the the programmers’ freedom to manipulate and study code but imposing conditions so that future modifications would remain free (Stallman, 1983).

With the catalyst of free software, Richard Stallman encourages us to question the very meaning of freedom. He asks us to really understand what freedom means at a technological and personal level, fighting against restrictions of individual rights, especially as they relate to software (Williams, 2002).

The history of GNU can be seen as a fight for democratic freedom in the creation of scientific and technological information. Stallman’s humanitarian individualism is reminiscent of the emphatical poetry of Whitman and the roads of Kerouac’s writings.



Free software translations

In January 2003, a new presidential term began in Brazil when the leader of the Worker’s Party, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, was elected based on a campaign featuring largely a leftist political agenda. Free software, which had already been used successfully in some states and cities governed by the Worker’s Party, acquired the status of a national effort.

"(...) Jose Dirceu [3], when answering to a question on the policies and criteria for the use of Free Software by Federal Government as a way to achieve development and independence, affirmed that Free Software is part of government’s structural policies, so there’s no risk of removing them from these policies or of having the Government moving away from them." [4]

In order to make a free software policy a reality in Brazil, it was necessary to create a strategy to encourage the adoption of free software. Our perspective is based on Michel Callon’s (1998) concept of market, in which goods to be traded must be disentangled from their links to other objects and people. This work of disentanglement is described as transaction framing, allowing market transactions to be free of external and restrictive connections [5]. This framing, however, generates an overflow, a "reentanglement" provoked by an unexpected bond. In this environment of framings and overflows, the market is always in a process of constant negotiation.

Policy decisions by the government frame the free software market, because the government uses its own purchasing power to essentially establish a position economically. In Brazil, non–authorized copies are used by almost 55 percent of IT users [6], so a customer on the scale of the government provides great incentives to software companies.

The development of free software needs to be stimulated by different actors: governments, the private sector, and civil society.

Since 2003, the federal government has been, in a series of public announcements and sponsorships to various events, revealing its new IT policy. The list of governmental IT initiatives is quite diversified. For example, in June, 2003, the government announced that it would be developing its purchasing portal, ComprasNet, with free software with the intention to distribute it to state and municipal governments. The government’s Electronic Government Committee was reorganized and renamed the Free Software Technical Implementation Committee. A Federal Government Free Software Sharing Meeting was promoted. SERPRO [7] launched the SERPRO Free Software Program and Site Factory for building federal government portals. All of these initiatives generated a cascade effect in diverse areas. In August 2003, the government promoted Legislative Free Software Week, including the launching of a Mixed Parliamentary Front for Free Software (with 125 representatives and 22 senators), and a commitment to accelerate the passage of federal laws indicating a federal free software preference. The Ministry of Science and Technology, in October 2003, announced the availability of some US$2.1 million for research projects based on free software. SERPRO began construction of a national database composed of companies offering free software consulting and services, and the National Institute of Information Technology (Instituto Nacional de Tecnologia da Informação or ITI) announced a project for a certification authority in free software.

In December 2003, during a new federal Free Software Sharing meeting, the government launched two portals for free software cooperation projects. In April 2004, the government provided training for some 2,100 municipal, state and federal public employees in the implementation and management of open source platforms for government administration. During the Fifth International Free Software Forum in June 2004, the federal government’s "Migration Guide to Free Software" was released.

In December 2003 during the Information Society World Summit, Ambassador Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães Neto, interim Minister of Foreign Affairs, reaffirmed the position of Brazil on this issue:

"Brazil sees free software as emblematic of the Information Society and of a new culture of solidarity and sharing, as an instrument to guarantee for all the access and domain of this universal language. The development of free software needs to be stimulated by different actors: governments, the private sector, and civil society." [8]

Among the effects of this framing, we note the reconfiguration of human resources (training and education) for the new market; the incentive to organizations to promote free software [9]; and, a lively debate in society about national technology policies.

The free software market

Even with the presence of the State’s "visible hand" in the construction of a market for free software, there are no guarantees that its demands and incentives will be effective. The success of government actions will depend on the way that free software will be developed by the market’s current business model, up to the point where a new actor takes place: the free software entrepreneur. Although rather implicit, the State’s efforts to help in the creation of this entrepreneur occurs throughout translations [10] that tie the development of free software to the establishment of regional economies, the conquest of technological independence, the increase of software exports, and the generation of new businesses. Such translations develop in tension with problems marked by a lack of human resources, resistance by entrepreneurs and government agencies, and basic differences between divergent models of software development and distribution, as well as between traditional and free software markets.

In the proprietary software market, copyright is a source of financial benefits. Its business model depends on a strategy which strives to increase the number of units sold in order to secure the greatest reduction in costs per unit. Therefore, as more consumers enter the market, per–unit costs decrease.

Since free software licenses allow modifications and distribution by third parties, it is difficult to calculate the exact and direct market value of free software. Therefore, a business model for this market would concentrate on a "service" based on providing added values, since the access to the source code is free.

As all change involves risk, those companies subscribing to a proprietary model tend to consider free software as a threat. They do not see any economic viability in abandoning copyright [11].

In order to encourage the development of free software, the government has stimulated partnerships with private initiatives. In Rio Grande do Sul (the most southern Brazilian state), the local Data Processing Companies Committee (Sindicato das Empresas de Informática do Rio Grande do Sol or SEPRORGS), together with a variety of government agencies and local universities, have created a cluster of organizations to encourage software development.



Brazilian translations revisited

In creating a free software market, current government policies can be viewed in part by past policy initiatives in Brazil in the 1970s and 1980s. These policies were an attempt to develop an industrial base of information technology in Brazil, with emphasis on the manufacture of minicomputers.

These policies ended in 1990, and were viewed by some as the frustrated adventures of an authoritarian and interventionist State. Ivan da Costa Marques (2003) provides an alternative view:

"The many perceptive histories and analyses of the market reserve, written by Brazilian and foreign researchers, recognize its phase of success but they tend to explain its exhaustion and consequent abandonment in 1990 as a consequence of the combination of a market based on high priced technical backward products with North American pressures to open Brazilian computer’s market. These factors are of no little importance, but in their conclusions, these histories and analysis nevertheless do not undo a current conviction that the market reserve was no more than an uncommon alliance, said to be made within military dictatorship environment, between parts of the left wing, clever entrepreneurs and nationalist right."
In this "alliance," entrepreneurs were assumed to play an important role. Marques (2003), when describing the necessary associations to support the Informatics National Policy, emphasizes that

"(...) for the information technology professional community of that time, the logical conclusion was practically imposed as a consensus in 1976–77: it was necessary to introduce an "artifice" in the game of the market so as to make investment in minicomputers conception and local design in Brazil more attractive to the national private capital."

According to Marques (2003), it was a general belief that

"(...) without a technological product being produced, sold and supported, the full product cycle is not completed, so it becomes uncertain the effective ownership of its technology. Surely public universities and entities that until then had been involved with minicomputers conception and design did not have the conditions to complete the product cycle; (...) ."

The IT entrepreneur needed to be created and the market reserve was seen as the vehicle to stimulate the creation of these entrepreneurs. Without this reserve, there would not be a market in which they would be able to compete. The government opened a competition to select companies which would be authorized to manufacture and sell minicomputers in Brazil, that is national companies committed to local investments in R&D. National groups were attracted and private companies were formed, initially licensing foreign computer architectures [12]. The Brazilian IT entrepreneur was finally born.

The actions of the Brazilian government towards the use of free software give the impression of rehabilitating these former policies, encouraging technological independence, national autonomy, and the development of regional economies. Would the free software entrepreneur be a reinvention of the IT entrepreneur, initiated by these former policies? This leads to several questions.

Does the public support free software as a de facto representation of a new market reserve? A number of opponents of the current policy argue that a preference for free software over proprietary software promotes protectionist practices. However, a market reserve based on the development of free software does not make sense, given the mandatory free and open distribution of source code and documentation. Therefore, any argument about supposed restrictions to the free software market arer illogical, since the fundamental knowledge base is available to all.

A second concern is over the long–term impact of the current policies, if they will eventually lead to the same results of those former policies relative to minicomputers. Marques (2003) attributes to the military certain deviations in decisions made by CAPRE/SEPLAN [13], the agency that managed IT national policy at the time. After that intervention, a new department was created, called the Special Secretariat of Informatics, directly subordinated to the President. The experience of the market reserve had been directly linked to a community of scientists and computer science professionals, examining the national technological policy within a "relative democracy," a concept proposed by the military to indicate that some issues could be debated with some freedom (but not all the issues could be discussed, and not all the people could have access to these discussions). Unfortunately, at the time scientists and computer science professionals were beginning to be suspected of sheltering "left ideologies," so the government decided to investigate the IT sector. This military intervention eventually led to an authoritarian model for all IT decisions and, consequently, the dispersion of this community. According to Marques:

"It is exactly the absence of transparency, the lack of accountability and the inexistence of a decentralized configuration of control that transforms the democratic instrumentalism into authoritarian technocratic centralism not reconcilable with the liberal democratic tradition. Demobilized, the community that configured the decentralized control, and absent from its ethos the obligation for transparency and for reporting to society, the colonels of the Security Agency, in a typical movement of authoritarian technocratic centralism, without consultation and explanation, had extended to the personal computer market the same procedures that had been adopted successfully to stimulate the conception, the design and the manufacture of minicomputers in Brazil."

At the present moment, although IT policies are being implemented in a democratic way, this lack of transparency persists as a threat.

With the appropriation of free software by both the market and the government in Brazil, there is certainly a need to stimulate and encourage the free software community. This community is the basis for improvements in, and contributions to, free software. The mobilization of this collective will depend on the transparency of relations between those who appropriate free software and those that develops it.




Like Whitman’s grass fields, Kerouac’s open road, or the counterculture’s personal computer, free software brings back a sense of democracy and individual freedom. Through the support of the free software community, the increasing reliability of free programs provide an outlet for an enormous dissatisfaction with control imposed by proprietary software companies.

Many controversies have developed as a result of the rise of free software relative, with the emergence of old and new allies and foes. In the "old" camp, there is the presence of the military encouraging efforts to develop a secure GNU/Linux, as well as some former administrators of the market reserve, involved in decisions surrounding technological policies and also some entrepreneurs developed under former policies. New allies include the community of free software developers, NGOs, and national and international personalities.

The future is free.

Some segments of the Brazilian free software community still fear the current policy, finding it rather opportunist and therefore not worthy of serious effort. In order to overcome those concerns, there needs to be a certain degree of transparency between the government and this community, in order to mobilize this collective to support free software both inside and outside Brazil.

In this context, a most telling episode recently occurred, involving Microsoft Brazil and ITI’s President, Sergio Amadeu da Silveira, demonstrating how democracy and technology, as well as community and government, reveal themselves.

Microsoft filed a lawsuit on 15 June 2004 [14], demanding an explanation of a statement made by Amadeu in an article published on a weekly magazine. Amadeu compared Microsoft’s practice of donating licenses to digital inclusion projects and city halls to "drug dealer practices," in which the gratuitousness of the first dose aims at eventual drug dependence [15]. A petition supporting Amadeu gathered more than ten thousand signatures in only three weeks. Amadeu received official support from a variety of institutions and from local and international personalities involved in the free and open source software movement. Amadeu made a brief statement:

"In special response to national and international enquiries from the press, that have been supportive with the Brazilian government in this unprecedented moment in which the president of an important public institution in this country suffers personally the action of those interested in keeping an hegemonic model, I come forward, after listening to my lawyers and federal solicitors, to say that the judicial provocation imposed against me is, by its own, so unusual and improper that it does not deserve any answer.

On the other hand, I’d like to register that the purchase of software that preserves the values of openness and freedom is, for the Brazilian government, a subject unavoidably connected to the democratic principle. And as it has been a long and painful path to reach our current democratic developmental stage in this country, we will not walk out our fight.

If democracy is a value full of ideology, it will never be an insignificant value. If democracy is a dream, it’s the one dream this country will never wake up from.

The future is free."

— Sergio Amadeu da Silveira, president of the Instituto Nacional de Tecnologia da Informação or ITI (our emphasis)

Current government policies in Brazil are linked essentially to the principles of freedom as expressed in free software, inseparable from the kind of democracy that the nation wants to establish. It remains to be seen if these policies will be successful. End of article


About the authors

Alexandre Silva Pinheiro is a M.Sc. graduate student at the COPPE — Graduate School and Research in Engineering of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
E–mail: alesilpi [at] cos [dot] ufrj [dot] br

Henrique Luiz Cukierman is Professor at the COPPE — Graduate School and Research in Engineering of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
E–mail: hcukier [at] cos [dot] ufrj [dot] br



1. See, for example, "Computer Technology and Telecommunications in Brazil," In: Information Society in Brazil — Green Book, at, accessed 4 November 2004.

2. Following Edwards, the expression closed world discourse would serve to describe the amalgam of practices, metaphors, techniques, fictions and technologies that supported North American Cold War politics, relating this discourse "with a high–technology military strategy, an ideology of apocalyptic struggle, and a language of integrated systems."

3. Although very imprecise, an analogy to U.S. government would identify Dirceu as Brazil’s Secretary of State.

4. "Minister Jose Dirceu affirms that Free Software is part of structural policies of the Federal Government," at, accessed January of 2004.

5. For example, suppliers’ attempt to perpetuate a transaction, for example, through affinity programs.

6. According to Brazilian Association of Software Companies, "Repression against piracy will be increased," at, accessed 13 December 2003.

7. The Federal Data Processing Service is the biggest public information technology company of Latin America. Created in 1970, in the middle of the most repressive period of a military dictatorial regime, it addresses the information technology needs of important agencies and ministries in the federal government.

8. Ambassador Samuel Guimarães Pinheiro Neto’s remarks at the Information Society World Summit on 10 December 2003, at, accessed 22 January 2003.

9. After the commitment of the federal government, the Brazil Free Software Project — PSL–BR (http://www. was created as a NGO with the objective of promoting the use of free software in Brazil. The PSL–BR was established following the pioneer example of PSL–RS, the Design Free Software Project of Rio Grande Do Sul, and is in charge of organizing the greatest event of free software in the world: the Free Sofware International Forum. After its creation, the Free Software Project spread out to other states. Today 12 of the 27 Brazilian states have an active PSL.

10. According to Bruno Latour (2000), a translation is a mechanism that allows the enlistment of allies and the control of their behavior in the construction of facts and artifacts.


12. Curiously none were from United States, surprising sice Digital Equipment Corporation and its PDP/VAX, were the leaders of minicomputers market.

13. CAPRE — Coordination of Electronic Data Processing Activities — was created in 1972, and reported to the Secretary of Planning (SEPLAN). It was responsible for rationalizing the use of computers in the federal administration.

14. Two weeks before the suit was filed, Microsoft Brazil’s president, Emilio Umeoka, declared to Reuters (eventually published in the New York Times) his criticism of the government’s support of free software, stating that "in 10 years we will have a dominant position on an insignificant thing." See, accessed 3 November 2004.

15. One of the arguments presented by the community was based on Bill Gates’ declaration about Microsoft’s strategy for China: "Although about three million computers get sold every year in China, people don’t pay for the software. Someday they will, though. And as long as they’re going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They’ll get sort of addicted, and then we’ll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade ... ." Bill Gates, address to University of Washington business school students, quoted on 20 July 1998 in Fortune. See, accessed 3 November 2004.



M. Callon, 1998. "An essay on framing and overflowing: economic externalities revisited by sociology," In: M. Callon (editor). The Laws of the Markets. Oxford: Blackwell.

P.N. Edwards, 1996. The closed world: Computers and politics of discourse in Cold War America. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

J. Kerouac, 1984. Pé Na Estrada. Translation of On the road by Eduardo Bueno. São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense.

B. Latour, 2000. Ciência em ação: Como seguir cientistas e engenheiros sociedade afora. Translation by Ivone C. Benedetti, revised by Jesus Paula de Assis. São Paulo: Editora UNESP.

S. Levy, 1994. Hackers: Heroes of the computer revolution. New York: Dell.

I. da Costa Marques, 2003. "Minicomputadores brasileiros nos anos 1970: uma reserva de mercado democrática em meio ao autoritarismo," Revista História, Ciências, Saúde–Manguinhos, Roi de Janeiro, volume 10, number 2 (maio–ago), pp. 657–681.

T. Roszak, 1988. O culto da informação. Translation of The cult of information by José Luiz Aidar. São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense.

R.M. Stallman, 1983. "GNU initial announcement," at,, accessed 10 November 2004.

W. Whitman, 1982. Complete poetry and collected prose. New York: Library of America.

S. Williams, 2002. Free as in freedom: Richard Stallman’s crusade for free software. Sebastopol, Calif.: O’Reilly & Associates.

Editorial history

Paper received 22 September 2004; accepted 19 October 2004.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2004, First Monday

Copyright ©2004, by Alexandre Silva Pinheiro and Henrique Luiz Cukierman

Free software: Some Brazilian translations by Alexandre Silva Pinheiro and Henrique Luiz Cukierman
First Monday, volume 9, number 11 (November 2004),