Monday, October 30, 2006

Free. Open. Not.

I am hoping most readers of this humble blog would be familiar with the term “free and open source software”.

No? Well, I am no expert but I gather it’s the idea that software should be accessed freely by just about anyone anywhere in the world – and made better. At virtually no cost. Or something like that …

The reason I am talking free and open source software with such abandon is because I came across a
snippet in Salon today pointing to an interesting academic paper by three researchers: two in the US and the third at the University of Havana.

The paper, which appears in The Information Technologies and International Development Journal, looks at the potential use of free and open source software in Cuba.

The academics concluded that free and open source software would be “a perfect fit” for a “developing nation” such as Cuba, which has an educated populace and a serious shortage of cash.

Except that free and open source software requires users to be, well ... free. You know, free to own a computer. And free to access the Internet.

Sadly, the researchers quickly discovered that you can do neither on Fidel Castro’s island.

Ordinary Cubans are barred from owning a personal computer, even if they can afford to buy one. In fact, they need a special permission from the regime, which is rarely granted.

As for Internet usage, it is effectively reserved for rich tourists since the State-owned telecommunications company charges $US4.50 for a three-hour pre-paid card. The average wage in Cuba - where 99 per cent of workers are employed by the State - is about $US20.00 a month.

And even if you are one of the lucky few and manage to get permission to buy a computer and have enough cash to get on the Internet, access to sites deemed by the regime to be “counter-revolutionary” is strictly illegal – and closely monitored, as a recent
report from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) found out.

Anyway ...

As part of their work, the academics also attempted to undertake some face-to-face research in Havana about computer usage but found it was nowhere as easy as they had expected.

They realised that a comprehensive questionnaire (you know, one that allowed respondents to speak freely) was out of the question.

“Potential respondents would not have been happy to collaborate on suspicion of the government being behind the research,” the researchers said.

In any case, they were told that “no research can be performed without previous approval of the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment, and studies must be under governmental control”.

The academics
concluded that any research that was in any way critical of the Castro regime or research that highlighted weakenesses in existing policies, was strictly out of bounds in Cuba.

Back to the drawing board.


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