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Brazil Has Become a Trailblazer in Computer Use

September 25, 2005

Sep. 25–RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — While Brazilians live with levels of poverty and violence that mark them as Third World citizens, they are emerging as trailblazers in the kind of high technology that’s propelling many First World economies.

Evolving fields such as open-source software, online banking and social networking through the Internet are finding a welcome home in this nation of more than 180 million people. So are legions of sophisticated hackers, who regularly make international headlines with their exploits.

That combination of high-tech savvy and lawlessness has pushed Brazil to the front line of some of the hottest technology debates, such as those over intellectual property rights and corporate control of media.

It also has placed the country in the crosshairs of media companies fighting losing battles against pirated wares.

On the economic front, Brazilians have yet to build an information technology industry on par with those in other developing countries such as India and Malaysia.

But this Latin American giant is coming up with new uses for technology, many of them geared toward opening access to people who would otherwise be excluded.

“We are at the forefront of the Third World, and we have the same opportunities that the First World has to compete now,” said Marcelo D’Elia Branco, coordinator of Projeto Software Livre Brasil, which advocates greater access to software. The name means Free Software Project Brazil in English.

“Information technology and Brazilians were a perfect marriage,” D’Elia Branco said. “Brazilians historically were interested in innovation, but they didn’t have good schools or universities, so they depended on their own creativity.

“The Internet is all about this kind of grass-roots creativity.”

Of course, technological inequality persists in Brazil, which the United Nations recently said has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the world.

Although the number of Brazilians with Internet access — more than 22 million — puts the nation among the world’s top 10 online countries, that’s only 12 percent of the population. By comparison, 69 percent of Americans have Internet access.

Those Brazilians depend on pirated technology that costs a fraction of the price of legal wares. About 60 percent of software and 70 percent of hardware used by Brazilians break copyright laws, according to estimates by tech companies and consultants.

Those who do use technology, however, are avid users, and they’ve led the high-tech world in key fields.

One area has been the production of hackers, people who break into networks often to steal data or money.

According to electronic security experts, about 80 percent of the world’s computer hackers operate from Brazil. In late August, Brazilian police arrested 85 people on suspicion of hacking into online, domestic bank accounts and making off with more than $33 million.

The country is also making its mark by building its own nascent information technology industry, which now makes $10 billion in annual sales.

This summer, the Mountain View, Calif.-based tech giant Google gave Brazilian technology a vote of confidence by opening a sales office in Sao Paulo and buying the Brazilian firm Akwan Information Technologies, which specializes in online search engines.

“It’s happening slowly, but businesses are investing,” said Ronaldo Lemos, a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a Brazilian research and educational institute. “We don’t have the language advantages that India has, but we have the people.”

Perhaps the area in which Brazil has made its biggest mark has been the promotion and use of open-source software, which people can download and install at no cost and help update by manipulating its source code.

The operating system Linux has been the mostly widely used open-source program in Brazil. It runs computers in government offices, universities and even supermarkets, Lemos said.

“We see free software as a means to promote social inclusion,” said Djalma Valois Filho, coordinator of the federal government’s open-source software implementation program.

“We are developing technological literacy in Brazil, and this is an affordable way to bring technology to people,” Valois said.

That philosophy of free use has also meant official support for stretching patent laws on a range of products, from generic AIDS drugs to copyrighted music.

“Because it’s such a huge market, Brazil has been able to use its financial clout to engineer common use at much cheaper prices,” said Harvard University law professor William Fisher, who has advised the Brazilian government on intellectual property law issues.

In the former coffee town of Pirai near Rio de Janeiro, Mayor Luiz Fernando de Souza has taken that idea of common use to its logical conclusion.

Seeing Internet access as vital to Pirai’s economic survival, de Souza decided four years ago to connect his 23,600 neighbors in one fell swoop. He set up transmitting stations in the hills above town and sent wireless, broadband Internet access to everyone with a computer.

That originally meant just government buildings and schools but has since expanded to include many private homes, de Souza said.

“The world today, you can’t do anything without the Internet,” he said. “It was just the practical thing to do. And Brazilians are very creative people.”

Brazilians are also some of the world’s most sociable people and have embraced technology such as social networking Web sites that help people meet each other.

Scan the U.S.-based social networking site Orkut, which claims about 10 million users worldwide, and profiles in Portuguese are sure to pop up. More than three-quarters of those who use the site, which is sponsored by Google, list Brazil as their country of residence.

“We just consume things like instant messenger and Orkut,” said Sao Paulo graduate student Luis Roberto Inui, 31, who previously was a financial software developer. “If you go into any office in Brazil, you’ll see people on Orkut.”

Much of Brazilian technology is being developed on an ad hoc basis by young, inspired people such as Ricardo Ruiz, 28, who, along with four other programmers, toil in a second-floor office in the heart of Rio’s historic Lapa district.

Using a Linux-based local network linking four computers rebuilt from old parts, the crew, many of them sporting sandals and dreadlocked hair, maintain Web sites and provide tech support for community centers run by Brazil’s culture ministry.

Those centers allow people to record music, video and other art and post them on a free, online database accessible to anyone.

“What we’re doing at the cultural centers is just like open-source software,” Ruiz said. “We’re bringing in talent from all over Brazil to design the program and the technology behind it. And we’re showing the world it can be done.”

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Copyright (c) 2005, Knight Ridder Washington Bureau

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