GOA, India, 25 May 2005
On May 28-29, 2005, the Free Software Foundation of India organised an unusual four-country meet, which brought in an unlikely set of nations together, who are half a globe away from each other and don’t speak the same language. But they do share one thing in common: the idea that knowledge is the most powerful when it is shared freely.
"The Free Software movement has shown a new way of knowledge creation based of collaboration and social ownership. This conference explores the possibilities of applying the Free Software model in addressing broader questions such as governance, digital inclusion, development and culture," one of the event’s key organisers Arun M told APC.
"There’s a lot to share among these (diverse) regions. We need to know what each other wants. But there are a lot of needs — from migration (to FOSS), to education to alternatives in the media. Both experiences and personnel can be exchanged, so that the countries involved get a chance to develop together and build together," said Juan Carlos Gentile, a digital musician turned free software activist who has played a role in networking software campaign groups in Latin America. Juan Carlos is a founding-member of Hipatia, an international group working in Free Software and free knowledge.
This meet was organised by the Free Software Foundation of India, along with Italy-based Hipatia, the Society for Promotion of Alternative Computing and Employment (SPACE) in Kerala and Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management-Kerala (IITM-K).
It was held over the weekend at the Technopark, a plush new technology and software promotion centre in the state-capital of India’s southernmost state of Kerala, one of the handful of such centres set up in a country — India — that sees itself as a growing player in the global software field..
Foreign delegations that came in included the Brazilian Antonio Albuquerque of the Ministry of Communication; the 20-member Venezuelan delegation led by Felipe Perez Marti, and eminent economist and ex-minister; and a three-member delegation from Italy led by Senator Fiorello Cortiana, member of that country’s parliamentary representation for WSIS.
IT companies from Brazil and Venezuela (PDVSA and CONATEL, the oil and telecom companies) sent in delegates for the conference. They are seen as being keen to explore possibilities of collaborating with Indian companies, organisers said.
Organisers said this conference also aimed at show-casing various free software and free content initiatives being undertaken by participants. This included the Creative Commons, a non-profit initiative devoted to expanding the range of creative work available for others to legally build upon and share.
"This will help representatives from different organisations and countries to find synergy and collaborate. Topics covered will include e-governance, bridging the digital divide, education, development, social justice, legal issues and micro-finance," said Arun, in a pre-event interview.
Theme-based discussions were also arranged on the role of free software and free knowledge on socio-economic development, the digital culture and technological advancement.
On its agenda, this conference also discussed the experience of participating nations in the use of free software, and also explored ways to collaborate on creation of new software applications as well as content.
"This conference is first of its kind to be organised in Asia. Free software and free culture activists from South nations are coming together to discuss issues relating to control over knowledge and creativity," said Arun.
The conference has been supported by Kerala State IT Mission and Intel.
Says Arun: "This conference came as result of the World Social Forum (held in Mumbai, India in) 2004. During that meet, free software advocates from various countries came together to organise events. FSF India and Hipatia took the initiative to run Media Center of WSF entirely with free software. For the first time in the history of the World Social Forum, its media center was running only on free software. It was a big success for movement and WSF."
After the event, the issue that came up was simply — what next. Hipatia and FSF india started working together, particularly to bring together activists from the the nations of the South together — like Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and India. From this was born the idea of the Kerala conference.
Says Arun: "We also wanted to have a South-South exchange of ideas before the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis (later this year). The idea was to create a policy framework which will protect the interest of developing nations."
Organisers were very keen to have the Brazilian singer-guitarist-song-writer turned minister of culture Gilberto Gil present for the event. He could have come; so might have the CreativeCommons champion Prof Lawrence Lessig. But uncertainty over governmental support made this difficult. "In effect, we had just two months to prepare for the event," said organisers.
Arun said one of the "expected results" of the conference is an "intellectual solidarity" between the participating countries "that may lead to more concrete collaborative initiatives in Free Software in particular and Free Knowledge in general".
Such initiatives, he argued, should address various developmental needs of the society, particularly address the so-called Digital Divide or chasm between those included and excluded from the benefits of the computer generated information era.
"We are sure that this conference will be a starting point of several initiatives in free software and free culture," said Arun.
Participants came from a broad mix. Says he: "Unlike many other free software conference, focus here is not on technology. We had delegates and speakers coming from various fields — film, music, politics, bureaucracy, education, scientific research, media, programming etc. This broad spectrum is offers challenges and possibilities for this conference."
"Every one had been excited about this conference. The Venezuela delegation is particularly interested in establishing relations with India IT companies and other organisations," said Anil.
"We hope this conference will create a long term collaboration between
members of free software communities from all the participating countries. We also explore the possibilities of specific initiatives in free software for governments, education and free software, free software and small enterprises and digital content production and sharing," said Arun.
Speakers who took part included the Venezuelan economist and free software activist Dr Felipe Perez-Marti — whose country was the first to mandate free software use in public sector institutions; musician-turned-free software campaigner Juan Carlos Gentile of initiatives like Red Escolar GNU/Linux in Latin America; Italian lawyer Marco Ciurcina; the Indian geek Anand Babu, a software hacker who has his set of admirers in India after he lead the engineering team of California Digital that designed and built the then world’s second fastest super computer (code named "Thunder") using free software in June 2004.
Conference website http://fsfs.hipatia.net Contact : arun at gnu.org.in