This is the fifth conversation of the 100+ Conversations to Inspire Our New Direction (#OKFN100) project.
Starting in January 2023, we are meeting with more than 100 people to discuss the future of open knowledge, shaped by a diverse set of visions from artists, activists, scholars, archivists, thinkers, policymakers, data scientists, educators, and community leaders from everyone.
The Open Knowledge Foundation team wants to identify and discuss issues sensitive to our movement and use this effort to constantly shape our actions and business strategies to best deliver what the community expects of us and our network, a pioneering organization that has been defining the standards of the open movement for two decades.
Another goal is to include the perspectives of people of diverse backgrounds, especially those from marginalized communities, dissident identities, and whose geographic location is outside of the world’s major financial powers.
How openness can accelerate and strengthen the struggles against the complex challenges of our time? This is the key question behind conversations like the one you can read below.
This week, almost the entire OKFN team is in Buenos Aires, participating in csv,conf,v7, which we helped organise. For this reason, today’s conversation speaks Spanish and brings the Latin American and Southern perspectives to address some of the global challenges of open technologies.
Today we are talking with Beatriz Busaniche, president of Fundación Vía Libre, co-founder of the Argentine chapter of Wikimedia and member of the Creative Commons Argentina team.
Beatriz is also a university professor at the University of Buenos Aires and the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) and has a very broad role in digital culture activism, electoral data, the interface of technologies with human rights, having published books such as Monopolios Artificiales sobre Bienes Intangibles (2007) and Propiedad Intelectual y Derechos Humanos (2016).
With each conversation, more people join the project. On this occasion, we had the pleasure of having the participation of Patricio del Boca, a Software Developer at OKFN based in Córdoba, Argentina, Fernanda Campagnucci, the Executive Director of Open Knowledge Brazil, and Lucas Pretti, OKFN’s Communications Lead based in Spain.
We hope you enjoy reading.
Patricio del Boca: The campaign against electronic voting in Argentina was the first time that I strongly militated with all social organizations. And I found that society was not prepared for such a public debate. There was no training and no basic knowledge about the democratic process. How was your experience? Did you find the same barriers when trying to have an open national debate on an object that directly affected the democratic process?
Beatriz Busaniche: We identified several barriers. One of them is the little knowledge that the general public has about how the electoral process works as an essential part of the democratic system. Another barrier is the technology-democracy relationship, the techno-utopian and solutionist view (as Evgeny Morozov would say), which sees technology as a neutral element. We had to work on those two issues to be able to address the bigger issue.
There are basic things that people don’t know, like who develops a technology or what a technology is. For example, people were told that voting machines had no software, and people believed it, much of the training offered to the public about the system was built on that misinformation. In addition, there was a much broader and deeper problem related to the electoral political processes, the weariness and laziness of the people, the idea of getting rid of the election and the lack of commitment of the electoral authorities in some cases.
This problem is also reflected in other Latin American and northern countries, where they will begin to have electoral problems and question democracy. In Brazil, for example, the discussion of electronic voting has been taken up by different political sectors, and it cannot be discussed because it has been one of the causes defended by supporters of Bolsonaro. In the United States, the allegations made by Donald Trump reveal an even greater global complexity. The difficulties one runs into have to do with these two big problems: the problems of not understanding politics or disinterest in politics, or dismantling democratic safeguards, and on the other hand, a lack of basic knowledge of the technology issues. And on that we had to work on that campaign.
Fernanda Campagnucci: What do you think is the role of free software in this context? In Brazil, we already have almost 30 years of system, which has evolved in this period, and it is in a very consolidated moment. Free software movements are focused on perfecting the system rather than questioning its value. How are you viewing this complex debate?
Beatriz Busaniche: Well, from the free software movement, we had that discussion here in Argentina. The first experience in the country was 20 years ago in the city of Ushuaia, which if you don’t know, I recommend visiting. A free pilot test was carried out, “courtesy” of a Spanish company called Indra, which has a long history of providing electoral services, and also problems with the law.
There were several free software organisations running and we also had that discussion within our different organisations. There were two views on the issue. One was, I believe, the one that is planted today in Brazil, that this is something irremediable, it will not be possible to avoid it and therefore, it is necessary to seek to do it in a transparent and open manner. We at Fundación Vía Libre had a strong debate, we discussed it with the community at that moment and then we decided to go for the refusal. Free software is an indispensable condition, but not enough. Unfortunately, in the case of Argentina, the number of attack vectors that an electoral system of this type has is so large and with the capacity to scale that we are still in the position of saying no.
Lucas Pretti: The biased debate seems to be a mark of the times today. Many of the causes of the right today have been captured from progressivism, and the same words are used – for example, the right to “freedom of expression”, which historically is a fight against authoritarianism and censorship, has been given a dangerous turn, to be simply understood as no limits for expression.
At the same time, it seems to me that we are experiencing a new critical awakening in relation to information technologies, a change of model. Social networks are in decline, there is more and more regulation on the subject of data extraction, the idea that giving everyone a voice and opinion would imply an improvement in democracy has turned out to be a mistake, and artificial intelligence seems to form a new frontier.
In this context, how can the idea of free culture survive today? I’m asking you as someone who was at the origins of this idea.
Beatriz Busaniche: What you say disturbs me deeply. What we spoke with total freedom 15 years ago today have been largely taken over by the extreme right, resignified, and turned against all those who can continue to think under the umbrella of progressivism. It generates an enormous heaviness of conscience for me. I can’t stop thinking and wondering what we did wrong.
But actually, I refuse to accept that. Censorship was always on the side of the right, the cataloging and authorization of public speeches based on a certain moral value. It was always conservative, and not us. I believe that we have been very wrong in thinking that the limits to freedom of expression could be a solution to the other major problems that we have such as violence against women, racial discrimination, and incitement to hatred against many groups. It seems to me that we are grabbing the door of the easy exit.
It is not that the right is claiming some of our struggles, but that some of the values of the right have permeated our movement. Sorry to say it so brutally, but I think it is the responsibility of those of us who defend human rights to realise that the easy way out of the speech “If I don’t like it, then I make it illegal” is a right-wing way out. It has never been in the progressive movements.
We like democracy, except when democracy slaps us and shows us that the majority likes things that are not what we defended. It is much easier for us to blame WhatsApp and social networks than to realise that perhaps there are majorities to whom we have not spoken or to whom we have not attended as appropriate. And that those majorities are not idiots. That should make us react, reflect and rethink many of the strategies that we have applied in the last 10 years at least.
Fernanda Campagnucci: I’d like to get back to the discussion about free software. In addition to the question of voting, there is a broader discussion about free and open data infrastructures of government. There was a discussion of free software law in Argentina. How did this process happen? What is the role of legislation in our region in guaranteeing a free infrastructure?
Beatriz Busaniche: We started working on a free software bill when Fundación Vía Libre was created in 2000. In fact, at that time, we presented a first draft of a bill on the use of free software in public administration, because we understand that software-mediated management is part of public management as a whole and is itself a public act. Therefore, free software should be the norm and not an exception in public administration.
But our attempts to legislate on the matter failed with complete success. At the national level, we don’t have any laws establishing open standards, free software, or anything like that. We never managed to have an effectively active policy transversal to the different free software efforts in the national public administration.
The case of some provinces is different, which in Argentina enjoy certain margins of autonomy. The province of Santa Fe has a model law, after a very interesting debate in its provincial legislature. They implemented the free software law for the provincial public administration and a mandate to the different municipalities that make up the province to adopt it as well. Within that mandate, the municipality of Rosario is the most representative because the different municipal administrations took it as an element of state policy; the mayor was changed but the policy is still there. This translated into a partial adoption of free software in public administration. There are sectors that massively adopted it, there are those that resisted and there are those that continue to resist.
In other words, legislation is necessary, it generates an important space for debate, but if there is no cultural change in the adoption of free systems, the change will not occur.
Patricio del Boca: The government’s conviction is built when civil society movements approach the government, pressure it, and also help it. I often see that the free software movement is deeply apolitical in the sense that it is made up of many anti-state people. How do you see that dynamic?
Beatriz Busaniche: I agree with your diagnosis. Above all, efficiency discourses have permeated the open movement, which has historically been the neoliberal discourse in the 1990s. I’m talking about “cost adjustment” and the government been seen as a “silly partner” or thorn blocking innovators who want progress and freedom to create technologies. And it seems to me that this is a bit at the heart of the open movement. There is a certain idea that the private sector is the innovator.
It seems to me that the open movement needs to read Mariana Mazzucato a little more, it seems to me that we are lacking in political culture. Working in technology towards joining some kind of civic social movement doesn’t give you the political background you need to change reality. What I mean by political education is that it can be non-partisan. You can dialogue with the state from an association, from a social movement, from the politics of convictions and not negotiations. I agree that the anti-state position does not help.
We at Fundación Vía Libre have a mantra that we repeat when those we like and those we don’t like win. The mantra is “No matter who is in government, we are always in the opposition”. That has given us a lot of freedom to move, a lot of flexibility to criticise what we consider criticisable, and to praise what we consider commendable.
Lucas Pretti: We recently had a conversation with Zoë Kooyman, the current director of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), and I wanted to ask you precisely the same question about today’s youth generation. Zoë said that to start talking about free software, you first have to explain what software is. They have been born and raised under user interfaces and their relationship with technology is totally different. How do you see the involvement of new generations with the movement? What are you doing from Vía Libre with young people?
Beatriz Busaniche: I agree with that diagnosis. Those who think they are tech-savvy because they were born with technology and had a tablet or phone from their earliest childhood don’t really know anything about technology. Neither what are the parts of a computer, nor what is the software. They have even gut reactions when something doesn’t work, but they don’t ask what it is that makes things work.
It seems to me that this logic of reconstructing the idea of what technology is and what role it has in society seems to me to be fundamental. I speak from a place of having at home a teenager and seeing firsthand the things that happen. They coexist the logic that technology is the solution to everything with a technological fatalism, that this is something that is going to happen and there is nothing I can say about it. It is happening to us in the discussion about artificial intelligence. We are working hard on this agenda right now.
There is a discourse through which I think we could try to enter thinking about adolescents and also university students, which is the environmental issue. Both in the instance of the creation of the technology and the use and disposal.
It seems to me that it touches more closely on the interests of this generation or at least touches on something that sounds like a possible cause for compromise. That is connected in a different way than we are with the logic of do-it-yourself, for example eating local, producing your own food, etc. The same could be said about technology perhaps.
Fernanda Campagnucci: I think feminism is also a gateway.
Beatriz Busaniche: Yes, feminism has a very interesting gateway from the construction of autonomy. Thinking about technology in terms of autonomy, of making decisions about your own software, about what you use, about what your computer does, about a privacy claim, etc. Here at home, there is a fan of privacy. His friends mistreat him in some situations because he says he doesn’t want to be in a photo. But at the same time he has Windows installed on his computer because “oh, Linux is horrible”. The blacksmith’s home has wooden knives.
At Vía Libre we are not currently doing specific work with young people. I think it’s beyond us.
Lucas Pretti: And what are you doing then? You briefly commented on the focus on artificial intelligence. Can you tell us more and get us inspired?
Beatriz Busaniche: Our mission is to work at the intersection of human rights and technologies. We understand that this is what free software is for, not as an objective in itself, but as an intermediate in the defense of human rights. Today we are working hard on everything that has to do with identifying stereotypes and biases in natural language processing systems.
I think we are doing some pretty interesting work for our region. We have developed a prototype for bias detection in natural language processing artifacts. We want to move from stereotypes to hate speech because hate speech is often based on the construction of stereotypes. So we are trying to turn the narrative around, trying to put a call to integrate ethics and human rights at the very moment of technology design. If we can achieve that, I think we will have accomplished our mission. It is the project that has me most excited.