Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Consider the Caipirinha -- Brazil, IT, and the Danger of Over-regulation

Consider the caipirinha, the national drink of Brazil.

A simple mixture of lime, sugar and cacha├ža (a local sugar cane-based aguardiente), the caipirinha is a delight. Separately the pieces are too sweet, too bitter, or too sour to appeal. And yet together, when crushed up just right in a low ball glass and served over ice with the soft sway of bossa nova in the background, these three come together in a potent and highly pleasant mixture that can cure whatever ails you. Ah the caipirinha.

Now consider regulation of the Internet. Yes, regulation.

Fast becoming Brazil’s third favorite sport (hint: soccer is in the top 2), Brazil has in recent months become a leading voice calling for the implementation of the WSIS principles that have been developed to guide the future of the Internet. In theory these principles are designed to help bring more access to more people around the world, to create openness and diversity on the web. Laudable goals. However, in practice the WSIS process contains a kind of soup-to-nuts wish list representing the hopes and dreams of dozens of interest groups – many of whom can’t really be pursued at the same time.

Recently, as an example, following the WSIS principle of openness, the Brazilian Government has proposed a bill that would mandate the purchase of open source software for the entire Brazilian government, based on the idea that the Government needs access to a program’s source code. In a short period this law would serve to make it illegal for government agencies to buy Oracle, or Microsoft or any one of the most common products you might find in any typical Government office. Regardless of quality or cost. Only open source.

Ignoring the question of whether or not the Government would ever use the source code (history shows they are unlikely to) or whether they could get access to the code if they asked for it (in most cases, they likely could), the legislation could cause a whole host of other problems. Who would service these bold new products, no one has determined. How long it might take for the already busy Brazilian government sector to adapt and train for changes, niguem sabe. Who would finance the changeover or additional maintenance costs is unclear. But that, of course, is not the point. A good idea – openness – has seemingly been lost in a sea of rigid rules.

At the same time, based on another of the WSIS principles – security – the Brazilian Government has recently been considering a draft law that would make it a crime to send e-mail, post on a blog or join a chat room or download content anonymously. In theory designed to slow the spread of viruses and Trojans, the legislation is written so broadly from my reading that the kind of things we do every day – choose whether or not to show our names when communicating with the public – could be punishable by stiff fines and years of jail time. Does this make sense? Of course not. Don’t these actions appear to fly in the face of the rights to privacy contained in another one of the WSIS principles? Of course they do. Imagine if this were made a standard around the world, where the ability to comment anonymously could be a matter of life or death.

So in the end, Internet regulation in Brazil may indeed be a lot like drinking caipirinhas. Making the drink is simple enough. The first little bit always tastes sweet. Still, because they are so easy to make and so sweet on the tongue, nobody has just one. And herein lies the rub. Aspirin, water and rest can treat even the worst caipirinha hangovers. But the confusion caused by the current attempt to implement the WSIS principles through regulation could do much more long term damage to Brazil’s civil liberties and economic growth.

Brazil is an exciting, dynamic economy that is moving faster and faster to take a leading place on the web. It would be a shame to see over-reaching lawmakers leave the land of the caipirinha with a long term regulation hangover.