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Ending Microsoft FUD: An Interview with Peruvian Congressman Villanueva

May 21, 2002, 00:24 (87 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Dee-Ann LeBlanc)

Dee-Ann LeBlanc, Linux Today and Stacey Tipton, Spanish.com

[ Linux Today expresses its thanks to Spanish.com, which provided professional translation services in the course of this interview. A Spanish version of this story can be found at Pimiento Linux. -ed.]

In the course of everyday business and politics, once in a while something truly significant happens. At such a time, ordinary letters become roadmaps for change, and a politician from a small mountain province in Perú can become a hero to those who believe in a cause: both amongst his countrymen and around the rest of the world.

On March 21, 2002, the General Manager of Microsoft Perú, Juan Alberto González, wrote a letter to Peruvian Congressman Dr. Edgar David Villanueva Nuñez regarding an issue near and dear to Microsoft's heart--or perhaps more appropriately, an issue that had the powers at Microsoft rolling their eyes in disbelief. The now infamous letter expressed Microsoft's concerns about Bill Number 1609, Free Software in Public Administration, which is currently under discussion in Perú's political and intellectual circles.

When reading the Microsoft letter in its original or translated form, most open source advocates can easily note that it's full of the usual Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) tactics used throughout time by big business to keep people afraid of going with anything but their big solution. No surprise there. However, try as advocates might, no one has been able to clearly and succinctly explain why many of Microsoft's and other companies' assertions were incorrect... until now.

Peruvian Congressman Villanueva's reply, written on April 8, 2002, has raised him practically to folk hero status amongst the open source community almost overnight. With eloquence and a strong attention to fact and detail, this letter manages to point by point rebut the many incorrect and even conflicting assertions made by González. Dr. Villanueva uses a matter-of-fact approach that simply tells it like it is, and is difficult to argue with--especially since the letter contains a reminder of Microsoft's own conviction of software piracy in France in 2001, which had until now escaped the attention of the North American press.

Reactions to Congressman Villanueva's letter are appearing far and wide, as well as speculation about whether the letter is real or not. Linux Today tracked down the story behind the letters, and took a look at how open source has captured mainstream attention in Perú.

A Bit of History

Villanueva has been aware of open source software and its benefits for almost six years. When he was mayor of Andahuaylas, a small province in south-central Perú, he wanted to modernize the computer systems used by the municipalities. He quickly discovered that purchasing enough licenses from international computer companies was simply not possible within the economic limitations of Perú's economy. Even worse, licenses expire, and if one cannot afford the initial licenses, then renewing them every one or two years is certainly not realistic.

Rather than stopping there, Villanueva began researching alternatives. It didn't take long to come across the open source and free software movements. The more he learned about these movements, the more he thought that "people with limited resources but surely with a lot of intelligence and capability," would benefit from focusing their energies in this direction.

And the benefits aren't limited to the initial setup and use, he discovered. Later on, as platforms and programs need to be updated or altered, his own citizens could do the work rather than paying for another round of licenses for an upgrade or new version.

Peruvian Bill Number 1609, Free Software in Public Administration

Villanueva was actually involved in creating Bill Number 1609 before being elected (in August 2001) to the Peruvian Congress to represent the area of Apurimac--a small region in south-central Perú containing seven provinces, including Andahuaylas. Once elected, he began working with his advisors on ways to expand Perú's technological base and draw youth into technology fields: something Villanueva sees as key to Perú's future economic growth. This work led to Bill Number 1609, which was presented before the Peruvian Congress in November 2001.

In summary, this Bill states that all areas of the Peruvian government would be required to make use of open source software (with the term strictly defined within the bill) except in specific cases where a mature enough open source project is not available. The Bill only affects the government's systems and does not restrict commercial entities from participating, as long as the software they offer is open source--or for educational institutions that may require some particular proprietary software for research or other purposes. All other institutions, companies, and so on within Perú could still purchase whatever software they please.

The largest barrier Villanueva has faced was broadening awareness of the problem he's trying to address. As with many aspects of open source, the answer to this need has come in the form of grass roots efforts. Early in Linux history, university students were the people most aware of the upstart operating system and its benefits. The same is proving true in Perú now. According to Villanueva, Peruvian university students hear about Bill Number 1609, and in turn speak to their parents, relatives, and friends, thus speading the word. It does not hurt that some of these people happen to be Peruvian Congressmen or other officials.

Once they heard more about Bill 1609, Peruvian Congressmen and other officials came to Villanueva to ask for invitations to his next talk on the subject, often at their children's request, thus setting up a growing cycle of knowledge about open source and its benefits. Adding further to the university push is the largest technical university in Perú, the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería (National University of Engineering). On February 14, 2002, this respected Peruvian institution added its own hefty voice in support of the initiative--something Villanueva takes as a source of pride.

Not that all is a bed of roses, of course. Microsoft Perú is, naturally, quite against any legislation that requires that an open source solution be chosen for government use. Villanueva points out that there are also various politicians in Perú who disagree on a variety of points in the Bill, either from their close ties to Microsoft or other proprietary software companies, or perhaps simply from the all too human fear of charting the unknown.

It's the politicians' concerns that Villanueva is working hard to soothe. After all, he stated, Perú cannot allow special interest groups--economic or otherwise--to prevent it from adopting a law that the people and government want, and that he honestly feels will help in both Perú's economic conditions and security of the state.

Writing the Letter

Villanueva was expecting the letter from Juan Alberto González, General Manager of Microsoft Perú. In fact, he'd requested it. As with any attempt to bring something new into law, the Peruvian Congressman had held meeting after meeting with institutes, organizations, corporations, and anyone else who has had an interest in seeing the Bill succeed as is or seeing changes made to it.

During this series of meetings, Villanueva repeatedly spoke with people from Microsoft. "They have come to give us a series of suggestions, and have given their opinions to us. We have received them, as I'll say again, democratically, and even more, waiting for them to convince us otherwise ... that is to say, if they could convince us that our bill was wrong," Villanueva said.

However, during the meetings the Peruvian Congressman and his associates did not feel swayed.

In order to further the process and ensure that all of the issues had been properly thought out, Villanueva requested that Microsoft Perú submit their observations, arguments, and concerns, in writing. However, as many have already seen, the written version was no more convincing than the spoken arguments.

Villanueva is, however, ultimately a lawyer rather than a computer expert. While he penned his now famous reply letter himself, he also had a team of technical experts checking every little fact to ensure that his technical points were as solid as both his legal and political points. Thus, his letter was both eloquent and full of solid information, which at the very least forced people to think before they attempt to rebut its points.

Reactions and Fallout

Villanueva knew that taking on Microsoft Perú was quite a step, but did not expect the reaction he's received from the open source community. "I [have] receive[d] tons of letters from various parts of the world. I am extremely surprised," he said when I asked about the level of reaction he's garnered from outside of Perú. His support amongst his fellow Peruvian congressmen continues to grow, and there is even an alternative Bill on the floor from the Vice President of the consumer protection commission--and this second Bill also has Dr. Villanueva's signature.

The Congressman is getting more and more caught up with the open source and free software movements as time goes by. Villanueva was once invited to an event in Columbia where he was to meet with the Free Software Foundation's Richard Stallman, and to his great disappointment this event had to be cancelled. He added as an aside that he hopes to meet Stallman at another international event--and hinted that perhaps someone over at the FSF might pass along the open invitation.

In the meantime, Villanueva and his supporters feel that the Bill Number 1609 may only be months away from approval. The Bill's chance of succeeding grows as international momentum builds behind them. That momentum can certainly help, Villanueva added, as those within Perú and without can help by writing articulate letters to any number of agencies in Perú, including Congressmen, the Commission of Education, and the Consumer Protection Commission, on both the freedoms of open source and the practical nature of how the Bill might benefit Perú, its government, its people, and its technology industry.

Perú's youth continue to approach Villanueva, offering to march in support of the Bill: "It is the youth that needs to drive its creativity, its intelligence, its intellect ... there are many young people that can create their own employment through [the use] of free software."

Now this humble Peruvian Congressman from the Andes, "armed with only his sense of reason, or at least with the truth," finds himself being invited to run for office from Argentina to Miami because of a single letter he wrote to a single person at a single corporation in defense of a single Bill.

When asked if there was anything he would like to add, Villanueva showed beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was the author of the letter: "I'd like to say to the people who are interested in free software, and also [those interested in] proprietary software, that really we should have a market economy; but a market economy where it isn't ruled by monopolies or 'Leo-polies'--where you don't have a situation where one guy is the Lion and leaves the Rat role for the others. So, that it [is] open, that it [is] democratic, that there [is] real competition, and that above all people are allowed to participate in technology. This is what I'm interested in, the philosophy that drives me, and as I've mentioned, I am a person that sees the enormous need for the youth to be brought closer to technology."

Related Links:

Congress of Perú
http://www.congreso.gob.pe/

Ministry of Education (Ministerio de Education)
http://www.minedu.gob.pe/

Consumer Protection Commission (Defensa del Consumidor y Organismo Reguladores de los Servicios Públicos)
http://www.congreso.gob.pe/organizacion/comisiones.asp

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