Free Software Seen as Way to Resolve many of Lebanon’s Economic Woes
As some try to release Lebanon’s government from the clutches of political paralysis so it can start tackling economic policy, a small but mighty group of advocates say the solution to many of the country’s economic and social woes lies in free technologies.
Free Open Source Software (FOSS) may seem to many to be more of a catchphrase than a reality, since it is not immediately clear why anyone would produce software without charging a price. But around the world, it is a widespread enterprise that saves consumers $60 billion a year in software expenditure, according to a 2008 study by Boston-based Information Technologies consulting group, Standish Group. It is also highly profitable, many proponents of free open source technologies have argued.
In the Arab world, the phenomenon is difficult to observe, but advocates and users of FOSS believe it is slowly gaining ground. Oftentimes, without realizing it, FOSS is a large part of the Arab computer user’s daily regiment. Mozilla Firefox, Facebook and Twitter are just some of the applications that are largely powered by FOSS.
“There’s a self-generated growth in [FOSS usage in Lebanon] from young grassroots tech communities,” said Denys Fredoryshenko, technical manager of Lebanese broadband internet provider, Virtual-ISP (VISP). VISP is run entirely on FOSS.
For software to be considered FOSS, it should satisfy a number of criteria. Chief among them is that they should be free of charge and that codes used to develop the software should be available for other developers to replicate, and, very importantly, to modify and build on.
OpenOffice.org is one important example of FOSS. It is a free replacement of the widely used, oft-copied Microsoft Office Suite, and allows for developers to tailor the program’s functions to different needs and preferences, such as language.
FOSS requires a unique kind of expertise that would allow Lebanon to exploit its many functions, which experts argue will generate a large amount of economic growth.
Fredoryshenko laments that those skills are in short supply in Lebanon, and believes Lebanon is too steeped in the divide between proprietary software, the likes of Microsoft, and crack-ware, or pirated software, to cater to this emerging alternative.
“It’s difficult [to use FOSS], especially since universities are preparing engineers that are stuck to the proprietary tradition. So they’re, for example, Microsoft-certified or Cisco-certified. All of this tradition is very expensive,” Fredoryshenko told The Daily Star.
Fredoryshenko carried his interest in FOSS to Lebanon from his native Russia where, he says, FOSS is one of the most important ways to save money. He says that implementing FOSS technologies has given VISP “much more power over competitors” by slashing costs. Competitors have tried to follow suit but lacked the manpower to do so.
Some groups, however, are trying to bridge this gap by organizing workshops to create needed skills, promoting awareness about Open Office, and petitioning government to adopt FOSS for bureaucratic functions.
Ma3bar.org, backed by the United Nations Development Program, is trying to spearhead this effort. It hopes to launch a research initiative that would detail what regional economies would stand to gain from mainstreaming FOSS.
“We keep trying to talk to the government about the benefits of free open source technologies, but they are not willing to listen to us,” said Walid Karam, Ma3bar chief, and Computer Science professor at The University of Balamand.
Karam suspects that government intransigence has to do with corruption within the political ranks. He raises the possibility that politicians have profited from government contracts with Microsoft and that this is why they have not yet embraced FOSS, which will likely cut government spending significantly.
For Fredoryshenko, FOSS would help the government to relieve the strains of government deficits, as well as fill in some gaping holes in the country’s security sector.
He recalls that the government recently dished out $250,000 to repair a security proxy, an endeavor that would have cost only the hardware cost of $5,000 had the government relied on FOSS. Fredoryshenko believes that all the government needs is some advisers to push that project forward.
“Security would improve because the country will depend on itself [for its electronic security] instead of depending on others,” he argued.
David Munir Nabti, another advocate for FOSS who is co-founder of Devine Media group, says FOSS will be central to putting the Arab world on the digital map. “One of the reasons that Arabic content online is so limited is because the cost of putting content online is much more expensive than in other parts of the world,” said Nabti. He argues that some major FOSS tools work very well with the Arabic language, but that there are some mismatches that only developers in this region can build up.