The Citizens' Network of the Municipality of Recife, Brazil: Lessons from the Experience with the First Latin American Freenet

Cláudio Marinho <>
Recife Municipal Informatics Enterprise/EMPREL


This paper demonstrates the economic, political, and social opportunities brought by the Internet for regional development by reporting on a four-year pioneering experience with a local government freenet in a poor peripheral region (the city of Recife in northeast Brazil).



"... the first real global institution [the Internet],
a global civil society."
(Shariffadeen, launching INET'97
at INET'96, Montreal; from the
author's notebook)

The "Citizens' Network--Information for Citizenship" was the first Latin American freenet, providing free dial-up access to the Internet since July 1993. It began that month with a gopher server, with two modems at 2.4 kbps to permit access to the Municipality of Recife databases (at the time, with high inflation rates in Brazil, a very popular service was a weekly price survey in supermarkets to assist citizens in price bargaining) and to other gophers on the Internet worldwide. When the national backbone bandwidth increased (from 9.6 kilobits per second [kbps] to 2 megabits per second [Mbits]) in August 1995, the "Rede Cidadao" Web site (the Portuguese name for the freenet--it has Portuguese and English main menus) was deployed, providing free Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) connections to the citizens and disseminating information on Recife and its people all over the Internet.

With six new dial-up lines for PPP access, and plans to have 20 more evening-switched lines conveniently sized not to hamper the emergent local Internet service provider (ISP) business, the site averages 5,000 daily hits, one of the highest in Brazil. Approximately 40% of the accesses are international, with a recent growth in the Brazilian figures due to the phenomenal dissemination of the Internet in Brazil--the figures for the Brazilian Internet users have gone from 100,000 (see [1]) to around 500,000, with perspectives of getting to 1,000,000 users this year or next year.

The freenet is also associated with other municipal projects to disseminate the use of computers and the Internet among poor families in the urban periphery. Just to mention two: the City Hall has five public training centers for "computer literacy" activities aiming at the local market for poor boys and girls (on this, see [2], about community telework centers, as a literature reference from which we get inspiration) and a 20-PCs local area network (LAN) routed to the point-of-presence of the Internet in Recife to train municipal teachers in the use of the Net. On the other side of the local spectrum, that of the specialized work force, the experience is in line with the initiative to support the Softex2000 (a national software export program) small firms--some of them with good perspectives to export through the Internet. This, together with such initiatives as an ATM metropolitan area fiber optics network being deployed by the state telco in cooperation with the City Hall and the local university, configure a local strategy that we try to implement with the participation of public and private organizations and individuals.

This paper then is a report of a work in progress that aims to share our experience with others at INET'97 that have the same policy excitement as we do--that of people who see in the Internet a new hope, the hope the Internet can make a difference even for those poor regions in the globe where we may think it would not be an alternative to make a better world. For, as Noam Chomsky recently said [3]:

If you assume that there's no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there's a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The CHOICE is yours.

The Internet in Brazil

The national strategy

Lima, Ribeiro Filho, and Takahashi [1] have reported in their accepted abstract submitted to INET'97 the general approach taken by the Brazilian federal government regarding the Internet:

Since the early stages of the RNP [Brazilian Academic Research Network (Rede Nacional de Pesquisa, or RNP)] project, the Brazilian government committed itself to extending the Internet to all the Brazilian territory. By putting together a distinctive backbone, including technologies such as wired copper, optical fibre, satellite and radio links, RNP was able to extend the Internet to at least one university or research centre in every Brazilian state. Today, RNP runs the biggest backbone in Latin America not only in terms of covered distance but also in terms number of connected institutions.(...) Currently in phase II, RNP's backbone connects nine principal Brazilian capitals at 2 Mbps, with the other capitals connected at a minimum speed of 64Kbps. The current model, where RNP manages the national backbone itself and through its Points of Presence in each Brazilian state, stimulates the creation of regional backbones, and is rapidly allowing the expansion of the Internet to small cities and rural areas of the country. At present there are more than 100 thousand Internet users in Brazil, and it is expected that the net will reach a million users in the next couple of years."

By the end of 1996, as a result of efforts like those referred to above and the existence of a reasonable telecommunications infrastructure in Brazil, the commercial boom happened in the Brazilian Internet. As compared with the once predominant growth (and total share) of the educational sites, between January 1996 and October 1996 the .com sites had grown 1,073% against "only" 83% in the .edu sites [4].

The Municipality of Recife Internet strategy

In the beginning of 1993, in the Municipality of Recife--a city with 1.3 million people, the capital of the state of Pernambuco (around 7 million people), in the impoverished northeast (45 million souls of the 152 million Brazilians)--a new administration was inaugurating a four-year term as the result of recent elections. In Brazil, as anywhere, this is a good time to try new projects, to look for innovative actions. Taking into account that a new federal government program was being launched to support Brazilian companies to export software in a cooperative effort with local governments, the mayor authorized the Municipal Informatics Enterprise/Emprel initiative to participate actively in the program. That was "Softex2000," the RNP cousin program. Those two programs together, one with information and telecommunications infrastructure, the other with an application-oriented approach, came as a "glove" to our strategy at the local policy level.

We had a twofold strategy at that time. At the microlevel, we had the clear understanding that, with the velocity with which things were happening in the information technology industry, our municipal informatics enterprise had to adapt conveniently, innovating and transforming the organizational environment. At the macrolevel, we believed a new role would be more and more demanded from the local government constituency, that of supporting the regional economic basis in a coherent way to facilitate the globalization of the economy. We realized, as Thrift [5] has proposed, that "it has become increasingly difficult to imagine cities as bounded space-times with definite surroundings, wheres and elsewheres."

As a rationale for our strategy, we proposed that the main problem with telematics networks like the Internet is the velocity of change underway. Knowing the problems of institutional inertia, be it a public or private organization, we could expect the tension brought to them by the software revolution. Restructuring is the word-of-mouth but the rhythms in government (maybe better measured by the four-year-or-so administrative period) are different -- institutional and political cultures are mainly conservative. And that was the problem we had to face. To summarize what we thought:

So, given the constraints of the political and institutional milieu of local governments and the character of the Internet (and the associated software revolution), and believing that this change in the economic-technological paradigm on course opens "windows of opportunity" to poor regions, we thought it would be reasonable to suggest that any help to support local initiatives in the terms proposed above would be a new and (maybe) more effective way to re-approach the regional development conundrum. That's what we have done, in a small but synergistic scale, with our "Citizens' Network" initiative and other associated programs, as we will be able to show below.

After all, we had the same view as Negroponte [6] in his afterwords for "Being Digital", calming the fears of his Greek pharmacist friend for his 13-year-old-son, who loves computers ("there will be no work for him on this small island"): "more and more the Net is becoming a place for entrepreneurs who are building 'global cottage industries'."

The Citizens' Network

This is the context to understand what happened in these four years with the "Rede Cidadão" project. It was not an isolated initiative. It could draw on the other strategic movements we started, like the internalization of state-of-the-art software development with a microeconomic goal at the enterprise level, and it could reinvigorate the social milieu for the necessary changes the new ICT paradigm makes inevitable--even in a peripheral, poor region like northeastern Brazil. We would appreciate your visit to to see some of the results of this initiative. And please bear in mind that we work as follows:

Partnership: the key to success

From the very beginning of the Web site phase of the "Citizens' Network", the project was implemented as a cooperative initiative. The motto that stimulated all those who pioneered the freenet, even in the gopher phase, was (from the gopher and Web site's introductory words):

The Citizens' Network is a noncommercial cooperative service of social, cultural, political, and economic information on Recife and the state of Pernambuco. It works through coordinated and decentralized initiatives, both private and public. The City Hall or citizens' interest groups take care of discussion lists, home pages on our Web site or special data bases on our gopher server. We welcome partnerships in these terms."

The Web pages resulting from partnerships with citizens' nonprofit groups or individuals wanting to publish information on the city of Recife, especially initiatives linked to the city's rich colonial architecture, its musical culture, and the beautiful and cheerful Carnival, were the main reason for a very rapid public exposure. And here a synergistic movement is something to draw attention to: being pioneers in a new medium means superexposure in the old (press, television), bringing more attention from the public, more initiatives, more exposure...and so on. It's the kind of networking recurrence we are all more and more aware of in the Internet environment. And a real cooperative public-private, win-win collaborative work began to grow.

Again a new phenomenon came through: young people engaged in the learning adventure, maybe the most significant effect the Internet could ever expect to achieve. New opportunities with Web design, content provision, site support and operation, and so on, all these and the challenge of a new subculture in formation (the cyberculture) attracted young and not-so-young people who understood that the vital energy this new medium came with is something you can tap on to resize your dreams. That was the effect we looked for as we devised the micro/macro strategy. For illustration purpose, we could cite the more than 600 people who came by to get a Netscape beta copy we distributed to get access to the freenet as soon as we started the Web site (August 1995) and as the commercial Internet was "in the egg." Another example is that of the two local newspapers, both "incubated" by the freenet in the early phase of development of their now commercial sites.

When the commercial boom of the Brazilian Internet came over, by the end of 1996, all these young people and institutions had an important lead-time advantage, right in the direction of what we thought our role should be--bringing innovation to early adopters, both at the enterprise and social level. In this undertaking, we have had the invaluable cooperation of the local federal university computer science department [7], an excellence center for study and research in software, with a special focus on the Internet.

City Hall at the citizens' home

The access to the Municipality of Recife databases--including urban economic and social indicators, the plans for investment in the poor areas of the city resulting from a public-participation budgeting process, price surveys in supermarkets and bookstores (these specially at the time a new school year begins)--is an example of what we think a freenet can make to help citizenry to have a better life.

But we want more than that; we have a special recent emphasis on converting some of the administrative services that require the presence of the citizen at the City Hall to HTML/database Internet transactions. The goal is to avoid citizens having to go to the City Hall for administrivia, and that is the reason we call the project "City Hall at Home." And we also want to get our freenet involved with a lot more issues that involve citizenship. Look at the recent municipal elections, when we opened our Web site to all candidates from all parties to launch their home pages--and they got some 30,000 hits.

The virtual tour of Recife

Finally, it's now important to draw your attention to the effect on the mood of the citizenry in the relationship with the city they live in when you put up some initiative to show the world their city. That's what we got when our partners in some cases and the Emprel staff in other cases have designed beautiful Web pages (with rich illustrations) on the city historical center (Portuguese and Dutch architectural influences since the 16th century) and our Carnival. That made them feel proud of their city--and, besides, brought tourists to heat our economy.


At the closing of this report, please let us pinpoint some distinctions in the text to put them in perspective for a possible discussion of the experience we reported here. We think it would be relevant to discuss:

And we would like to share our experience and learn from similar experiences some of you at INET'97 may kindly be open to share with us. After all, we have the hope that the Recife "Citizens' Network," as a collective public-private initiative using networked computers' global pervasiveness, may contribute with Brazilian local added values to this "global civil society" under construction that is the Internet.

You're welcome at!


  1. Lima, Ribeiro Filho, and Takahashi, The Brazilian Academic Research Network
  2. Castells, M. "Relationships of Advanced Information Technology, Economic Organization, and the Social Structure of Cities," In Colloquium on Advanced Information Technology, Low-Income Communities, and the City, Dept. of Urban Studies and Planning, MIT, 8 March 1996, session summary.
  3. Wired 5.01, January 1997.
  4. MCT/Government of Brazil, The Global Information Society: a Brazilian Perspective,
  5. Apud, G. S. "Imagining the Real-Time City: Telecommunications, Urban Paradigms and the Future of Cities," In Westwood, S., and Williams, J. (eds), Imagining Cities, London: Routledge, 1996.
  6. Negroponte, N. Being Digital, New York: Vintage, 1996.