[NOTE: This article no longer represents my position but is left online for archival purposes.]
The electronic voting market is exploding… numerous existing and start-up companies have identified the huge revenue potential that the private and public markets offer, resulting in a raft of products and services being offered.
There has been considerable discussion both on- and off-line regarding the merits of electronic voting as whole, in addition to controversy over the validity of different technologies. However there seems to be little public debate over whether proprietary software is the appropriate way to provide electronic voting in public elections nor whether it’s use makes the best business sense in private implementations.
Before the electronic voting community and its onlookers make hurried assumptions over how this market should develop I am keen to put forward the arguments for a non-proprietary model: Free Software.
For those unfamiliar with the movement as a whole I highly recommend browsing the Free Software Foundation’s site on the matter at http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/ . Within this article I shall be covering the merits of Free Software (sometimes known as Open Source ? though they are not quite the same thing) only within the context of electronic voting.
A key benefit of releasing software under a Free Software license is openness. The (Internet-based) electronic voting community is only starting to take steps towards becoming more accessible and open through initiatives such as publication of The Bell. Being open is key to fostering trust and accountability – these are especially needed in the world of voting software.
The IVTA’s recent commitment to open protocols is another positive step in the right direction, however (as I pointed out on the IVTA tech mailing list) it is no guarantee that the software that uses these protocols will be open or even that the software implements the protocols properly. But why should we want the software to be open at all? Two key reasons are security and observability.
Many commercial electronic voting companies seem to rely on security through obscurity. They will not release detailed (or in some cases, any) technical information on how their voting systems work. From analysis that I have done, some of the guilty parties have good reason to hide their handiwork as their electronic voting systems are nothing more than trumped-up e-commerce systems that do not address any of the major security, privacy or reliability issues that we as a community are working to solve.
We all know that the only way to guarantee security is through peer review and careful audit by professionals. The IVTA encourages this with open protocols, and I support that whole-heartedly. However there are programs we could all nominate for not properly implementing freely available, publicly ratified, standards. Only Free Software, with the access to source code that it unequivocally upholds, enables anyone to verify (and repair) implementations of protocols. In other words “many eyes make bugs shallow”.
Access to the source code also allows for the easy addition of new protocols whether for secure vote recording or voter authorisation (for example FREE’s security model allows for the easy addition of new identification devices such as smart cards or retina scanners).
The FREE e-democracy project strongly feels that the slightest hint that privacy or security could be sullied by electronic voting systems may permanently damage the likelihood of such technologies being widely accepted in the public sector. Only full and permanent to commitment to a culture of openness will effectively counter such threats.
Free Software creates openness by allowing anyone to use the software, read the source code, modify the program and pass it on. People get involved and are naturally encouraged to learn how the programs work. This fosters a culture of observability where programmers expect their Free Software code to be read by a multitude of users with skills exceeding or way below their own. The result: programmers are careful to comment their source code and constantly evaluate the quality of their programming.
Furthermore anyone with the skills (or the time and willingness) can check the code themselves – helping them to trust the system. Why would you trust a similar proprietary system when the creators won’t tell you how it works? What could be hiding in there? Do they know about problems or weaknesses that I don’t? The very act of hiding the information creates distrust – especially when the provider is building the system for personal profit and thus not necessarily with our best interests in mind.
Anyone could audit a Free Software voting system before it went into use to guarantee the absence of trojan horses, hidden result manipulation functions or blatant weaknesses without having to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements and with the full ability to take their findings public and/or fix them if they were that way inclined.
As Richard Stallman (founder of the Free Software Foundation) says “think of ‘free speech’, not ‘free beer’ “. Free Software licenses, especially the GNU General Public License, enforce basic freedoms and rights for users of the software. While there can be no denying the strong arguments for associating these freedoms with all software, I believe they are particularly apt in the context of electronic voting software. In my opinion the two key freedoms worth discussing with regards to this subject are freedom from dependencies and freedom from cost.
Freedom from Dependencies
Any county, state, country or organisation buying commercial electronic voting technologies is totally dependent on the strategy of the manufacturer. The company may develop the software in a direction different to one’s own elections strategy or may simply refuse to provide the features you believe to be essential.
Take, for example, Iceland’s struggle to get Microsoft to deliver Windows9x in their native Icelandic language. Alternatively consider the predicament users of Banyan Vines networking software were placed in when Banyan totally abandoned the networking market for e-commerce under the new name of epresence. Iceland risks being sidelined in the ‘new economy’ while Banyan users saw their massive technology investments become worthless. If the software had been Free Software they wouldn’t have been in such dire situations.
No matter the direction, fortunes or internationalisation policy of your provider – if the software is Free Software it is totally modifiable. The user has the source code and so can develop the software however they want, thus investments in and commitments to technologies are protected. Free Software users keep control of their technological destinies.
Freedom from Cost
Thanks to the advertising of software associations and the scary licenses we get with software we have lost the culture of sharing that once used to be a big part of the computing world. Even academics, who are dependent on the discourse and sharing of ideas that used to typify academia, now prefer to patent before sharing – if they ever do share.
Free Software lets you share, the way friends and neighbours should, without any legal repercussions. This isn’t just about sharing with our neighbours in the next cubicle or building, this is about fellowship with our global neighbours. I believe we have a moral duty to empower any country to follow the (often twisted) path towards representative democracy – electronic voting may well be the best way for many countries to do so. But will commercial voting companies share their systems with less well off organisations and countries? Aren’t they dependent on the income from software and associated services sales for survival? Are we going to mindlessly follow the same worn path that the pharmaceutical giants, disdainful of limited third-world buying power, have trod?
We can share Free Software with whoever we want, wherever we want. And you can feel good knowing that license allows them to keep sharing that with whoever they want. It’s a powerful thought.
One final note on the freedom from cost: Let me make clear that supporting Free Software does not mean opposition to commercial software and its developers. Software development is a good and decent way to make a living and despite what some argue, proponents of Free Software are not ‘communists’ against all forms of commercial activity. Furthermore paying for Free Software is perfectly acceptable, but Free Software provides a viable (and my preferred) alternative to pure commercial licenses in the same way that shareware and public domain licenses do. Free Software provides a key building block for creating a future that celebrates moral values as well as commercial success.
The FREE e-democracy project
So how does our project follow through on some of the promises that Free Software offers? The project has a number of aims that we keep at the top of our minds when developing the software and when running the project as a whole:
Software Development Aims
- Provide a secure and private system
- Create scalable and reliable software
- Offer a non-commercial, non-partisan voting alternative
- Use the GPL to create an open system that Internet users will trust
- Release a system that can be used to support the growth of effective democracy anywhere in the world
- Develop a leading electronic voting system
- Advocate the free software paradigm
- Evangelise the use of technology to strengthen democracy within a holistic understanding of the current malaise i.e. Internet voting alone isn’t going to solve turnout problems
With these aims in mind we have developed software which has been through several iterations, currently standing at version 1.3. The software has been downloaded hundreds of times and a wide number of groups ranging from VICA to the Free Software Foundation are assessing it.
I invite anyone to contribute their time to a project which could have a long lasting impact on the world of electronic voting. Welcome to the community!
This article was originally written for The Bell, this HTML edition has been slightly expanded.