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Anthropological Quarterly 77.3 (2004) 531-545

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Coding Free Software, Coding Free States:

Free Software Legislation and the Politics of Code in Peru

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In December 2001, a legislative proposal was introduced to the Peruvian Congress that would have mandated the use of free software on government computers. The introduction of the bill, dubbed the Law for the Use of Free Software in Government Agencies, or Proposition 1609,1 added Peru to a growing list of countries pursuing legal measures for the adoption of free software by government. Similar measures had begun in Brazil, Argentina, France, and Mexico—and within a year, they would be joined by dozens of other national- and local-level efforts in Germany, Spain, Italy, and Vietnam—all seeking to establish official alternatives to the use of closed, proprietary software by government. But it was Peru alone that uniquely managed to capture international public attention in the work surrounding its legislative efforts.

Much of the publicity was spurred through the online circulation of a letter-mediated exchange between Microsoft's General Manager in Peru—who attacked the bill as a "danger" to the nation's security and to corporate intellectual property rights—and the congressional sponsor of the bill, Congressman Edgar Villanueva, who staunchly defended its support. The letters later became the focus of a wave of international media coverage around the South American nation and its legal proposal. Unlike any other nation considering similar legislation, [End Page 531] Peru's proposal and its Congressional author were suddenly transformed into prominently visible players in the global movement for free software. Or as one reporter from the online news publication Linux Today prophetically narrated: "In the course of everyday business and politics, once in a while something truly significant happens. At such a time, letters become road maps for change and a politician from a small mountain town in Peru can become a hero to those who believe in a cause: both amongst his countrymen, and around the rest of the world... Congressman Villanueva's reply [to Microsoft]... raised him practically to folk hero status over night" (LeBlanc 2002).

Envisioning Free Software

Despite the unusual media attention captured by the Peruvian legislative efforts, and the rapidly expanding adoption of similar initiatives by national and local governments worldwide, the dominant reaction of free software proponents to the bill in the months following its proposal was to treat it as simply further evidence of free software's continued global spread. Minimizing the local specificity of actors and contexts surrounding the emergence of legal proposals like Peru's, the prevailing reading of such developments in the developed North was as one extraordinary achievement within free software's history of other, similarly extraordinary achievements. For many free software practitioners, it was the seemingly uncontainable momentum of their movement and the sheer technical strength of free software itself—more than any particular local actions or activities—that were to credit for its global successes.

Yet a closer examination of the practices that surround the emergence of free software legislation in Peru reveals a distinctly different account. Far from presuming free software's steady advancement, the proponents of Peru's free software legislation undertook various forms of local and non-local work, advocacy, and activism to propel the visibility of their movement. Further, their practices departed from the language of technical and economic rationality that had been repeatedly invoked to explain free software's adoption. They insisted instead on a new framing of free software as necessarily engaged and invested in processes of governance and political reform. And while prominent factions of free software had previously read social linkages to formal political bodies as unnecessary or even counterproductive, Peru's free software advocates actively sought to build relations with bodies of governance, demonstrating a willingness to engage with traditional political channels. If free software had frequently expressed a confidence that it would and should spread without government's [End Page 532] intervention, Peru's legislative developments signaled a departure from such free...


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