Microsoft/UNESCO Agreement: neo-colonialism in the computer era

From https://www.april.org/en/articles/divers/tribune-microsoft-unesco-liberation.html.en – Article published in Liberation 01/05/2004

Signatories :

Mr. Sergio Amadeu da Silveira – President of the National Institut National of Information Technology – Civil House of the Republic Presidence – Brazil

Felipe Pérez Martí – former Minister of Planification and Developpement – Venezuela

Federico Heinz – Fundación Vía Libre – Argentina

Professeur Mohamed Ben Ahmed – president of the «Association Tunisienne des Logiciels Libres», former Secretary of State, former ambassador

Marcelo D’Elia Branco – Projecto Software Livre – Brazil

Benoît Sibaud – president of APRIL (Association pour la Promotion et la Recherche en Informatique Libre, Association for Promotion and Research in Libre Computing)

Frédéric Couchet – Free Software Foundation France

Microsoft/UNESCO Agreement: neo-colonialism in the computer era

On November 17th 2004, Bill Gates visited UNESCO headquarters in Paris to sign a partnership agreement with the organization.

This agreement defines eight objectives [1] on which UNESCO and Microsoft agree to collaborate by exchanging experience, know-how and development projects.

As creditable as these objectives might be, we are astonished to see UNESCO choose to implement them with the assistance of Microsoft.

This is even more surprising considering that the organization has shown significant support towards Free Software in the past, by putting online a Free Software portal [2a], by adding the GNU project on the World Treasures list [2b] or by helping Freeduc live-CD from OFSET project [2c].

The 2003 CNUCED report concluded that ‘free software could dynamize the TIC sector in developing countries’ [3] and the UNESCO itself asserted, through Mr Abdul Waheed Khan from the communication and information department: ‘The UNESCO has always been encouraging the extension and diffusion of knowledge, and acknowledges that in the software field, free software helps spreading this knowledge in a unique way unattainable by proprietary software’. [4]

Today, with the conclusion of this partnership agreement, we feel that this honourable institution moves away from a real opportunity to reduce the digital divide in developing countries.

What will be the long-term effects for both parties? Microsoft is clearly looking at increased business opportunutues while southern countries are facing ‘negative consequences’.

As far as the Redmond firm is concerned, the distribution of copies of programs that have long since covered their costs.

In return, the firm gains the opportunity to increase its commercial presence in Southern countries, aided by the prestigious reputation of a large international not for profit organization.

The consequences of this for developing countries are many:

1- ‘Science without conscience’ the consumerisation of education

By promoting proprietary software, the agreement incites developing countries to consider software as something which is bought, not built, as an industrial product rather than a cultural know-how that should be taught and shared. The agreement tacitly supports the idea that it is acceptable to give-up essential freedoms merely in exchange for access to some computer programs. Education and culture cannot be reduced to only know-how and knowledge: they also transmit our values. When software is used for education and culture, these values should not be pushed aside.

2- The sacrifice of linguistic pluralism and cultural diversity

Although developing countries aspire to reduce the digital divide separating them from industrialized countries, they do not intend to sacrifice their linguistic and cultural specificities. Software companies such as Microsoft, will not develop specific versions of their software for other languages or uses if they do not foresee profitable commercial opportunities.

This is not the case with free software, where the effort of a small team composed of volunteers and/or contractors can produce localized versions of software. For example, the Mozilla Internet browser can now be used with an interface translated into Luganda, the national language of Uganda. This translation was done in less than a year by a team of 8 people, including 4 translators, and without funding. In fact there was no formal organization for the project, only motivated users [5].

3- Hand-holding rather than training

As underlined very recently by the Ivory Coast Association for GNU/Linux and Free Software [6], ‘to learn, one must understand’.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how computer science students in developing countries could master techniques which are mostly kept hidden from them.

Even more baffling is how a company whose very business model depends largely on prohibiting the study and use of its technical processes can legitimately claim a vacation to educate.

Far from this stunted mentality, the philosophy of free software is based on mutualisation of knowledge. It is in perfect harmony with the traditional culture of sharing found in many developing countries, especially African ones.

The old saying goes: ‘Give a man a fish and it’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for life’

In the computer era, giving a proprietary software to a man turns him into a captive consumer of technology; providing him with the possibility to adopt free software techniques turns him into a producer.

4- Supervised economic development

By choosing proprietary software, a nation merely leases technology. The monetary cost being renewed license fees and paying upgrades.

In the case of free software, software development will take place locally and the fees previously leaving the country will remain in the GDP.

In the information society, enterpreneurial opportunities depend primarily on unhindered access to the software on which this society is based. A company that would depend on a quasi-monopolistic supplier forbidding any adaptation of its software loses any hope of levelling the playing field enough to compete in the worldwide market.

Developing an industry based on free software places all companies on the same level as the largest international corporations.

In the information society, only a country mastering its software tools may hope to control its own development. If it does not, it becomes a colonialized victim with regard first to economical and cultural issues, and then to political ones. To illustrate this reality, one need only observe the intense anti free software lobbying efforts undertaken by the USA at the WSIS. [7]

5- The threat to political independence and secure communications

Political leaders expect their communication systems to be not only effective but also secure. They will not accept that communications on their deliberations and upcoming decisions be vulnerable to third party spying or influence, from either a foreign government or private interests.

Microsoft products can in no way provide this guarantee by the very fact that their source code is deemed confidential and kept hidden.

As early as the year 2000, a report from the Delegation of Strategic Affairs, an affiliate of the French Ministery of Armed Forces pointed to the collusion between the NSA and Microsoft. They report denounced, although prudently keeping to the conditional form, the existence of NSA agents among Microsoft development teams [8a]. Four years later, the parliamentary report on economic intelligence ordered by the French Raffarin government to MP Bernard Carayon underlined the same level of danger associated to proprietary software regarding independence of information[8b].

Free software source code is freely available and can be scrutinized by everyone. Thus it cannot be suspected of government or private interest collusion. Only free software can provide Southern countries with the guarantee that catching up in the technological domain will not force them to give up a share of their sovereignty.

We fear that through this partnership, with the involuntary assistance of UNESCO, Microsoft seeks to put developing countries not into a sustainable development scheme but into a durable subjection one. We fear that Microsoft ‘gift’ is actually the ‘kiss of death’ for developing nation’s research and software industries. Bill Gates’ offer to UNESCO is a money-making business opportunity for Microsoft, while free software is a real alternative offering cultural, scientific and technological advances for Southern countries.

We take note of Mr Koichiro Matsuura’s (UNESCO general director) declaration which indicates that ‘the Microsoft and UNESCO relationship is not an exclusive one’. [9] We strongly hope to see a confirmation of this declaration through a commitment from the organization giving priority to free software, such a commitment is necessary restore a currently compromised balance.


[1]
1- education and learning;
2- community access and development;
3- cultural and linguistic diversity and preservation;
4- digital inclusion and capacity;
5- exchange and promotion of best practices on the use of ICT for socio-economic development;
6- fostering web-based communities of practice, including content development, knowledge sharing and empowerment through participation;
7- facilitating exchange of information and of software applications;
8- sharing expertise and strategies.

[2a]
UNESCO Free Software portal : http://portal.unesco.org/ci/en/ev.php-URL_ID=12034&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

[2b]
Free Software as a World Treasure
http://www.fwtunesco.org/article/articleview/22

[2c]
UNESCO supports the development of FREEDUC http://ofset.org/en/articles/22

[3]
http://www.unctad.org/Templates/Webflyer.asp?docID=4255&intItemID=2068&lang=1
– CNUCED 2003 full report : http://www.unctad.org/Templates/webflyer.asp?docid=4228&intItemID=1528&lang=1

[4]
http://www.fsfeurope.org/projects/mankind/lsm2002/index.fr.html

[5]
Mozilla translated into Luganda : http://www.linuxplanet.com/linuxplanet/interviews/5567/1/ – see also http://www.translate.org.za/, pioneer association on this subject

[6]
Ivory Coast Association for GNU/Linux and Free Software, « Logiciels libres en Côte d’Ivoire : plaidoyer pour leur démocratisation », Fraternité Matin, 27/10/2004 http://fr.allafrica.com/stories/200410270494.html

[7]
World Summit on the Information Society: WTO and WIPO as special guests http://fsffrance.org/news/article2003-07-18.fr.html

[8a]
Le Monde du renseignement, 17/02/2000, via http://www.intelligenceonline.fr [8b] « Intelligence économique, compétitivité et cohésion sociale », 2003 http://www.ladocfrancaise.gouv.fr/brp/notices/034000484.shtml

[9]
UNESCO and Microsoft sign cooperation agreement to help bridge the digital divide http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=23643&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

Danie van der Merwe

Author: Danie van der Merwe

Worked at SA Police and then SITA for a total of 35 years before taking retirement. My passions now are promoting open source software, green environment tech, and blogging about gadgets and technology.

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