The privatization of democracy

40 years ago, there were no computer networks as we have today. Voting via Internet was not possible, because Internet didn’t exist. Even today, we still vote most of the time as we did traditionally, with the paper ballot. But we have the ballot in one hand, and our smartphone in the other: electronic voting is coming. Hundreds of thousands voted from their computers in Estonia’s general elections in 2011, and most countries have already been experimenting with some kind of electronic voting for some time now. Internet voting is not just a fad, it’s here to stay.

The privatization of democracy

Presenting the issue of the privatization of democracy, during a presentation in MediaLabPrado/Madrid. 12 Nov 2013.

But doing elections is a serious matter, and our whole political, economical, and social system depends on it – and democracy depends on the credibility and the legitimacy of this crucial democratic process. In the traditional paper-based elections, there are observers and independent parties that supervise, verify and carry on the collection of the votes and most importantly, the tally and computation of the results. This simple, transparent, and participative method has proven to be an effective way to ensure that the whole voting process preserves its legitimacy. Small corruptions of one vote here and another there do still happen, but the problem is contained and reduced to the bare minimum.

On the other hand, the state of the art of technology allows an important innovation of the democratic process of voting, and there are some companies that are leading this effort: Sctyl is the most prominent, though not the only one. But make no mistake, tecnology is not neutral, and innovation does not always benefit the public interest.

Let us take one example, that can be extrapolated to most institutional online elections: the European Greens political party is performing the first pan-european primary election, which for practical reasons probably could not be done at all if voting was not done via Internet. It’s no doubt a welcome and praised innovation in the political arena, but the way this election is being carried out means also the privatization of the very important democratic process of electing a political leader that represents millions of people: the source code of the voting system is totally controlled by one company so we lose in independence, and the whole vote-casting and tallying process is controlled by the same company, so we lose control of the very process of democracy.

Contracting an experienced company with a privative solution is the easy way: close your eyes, cover your nose and just pay. On the other hand, it finances and reinforces the position of a multinational that is an unapologetic monopoly in online voting, that proudly asserts in its own website that they control more than 87% of the online voting market. So basically, that’s also the minimum privatization rate of online elections. And that’s not the only risk: when the election process is controlled by a single entity, this provides a much more convenient single point of failure to be attacked by any interested external third party. This could be any government or big company with interests in Europe in the case of the Green Primary. In a post-Snowden era, this is something really worth to take into consideration.

Some people propose as an alternative not to do any Internet or electronic voting at all, and this can really be a solution for a few, right now. But other organizations might still decide to do electronic elections to innovate, and sometimes it might even be the only alternative, like it might be the case for the Green Primaries. We need to ponder and raise awareness of a tough issue, as this is no joking matter: Are we really willing to privatize what currently is a transparent, participative and independent electoral process? Isn’t there another, better way to innovate and do Internet Voting?

At AgoraVoting we try to provide a solution for this problem: our aim is to provide a flexible, trustworthy libre software voting system. By developing this free software project in community we can guarantee independence. And the strength of our system resides in mathematical mechanisms that serve as analogues of traditional election scrutineers (also known as poll-watchers) who oversee and perform elections processes to ensure correctness and thus attain trust from the general public. AgoraVoting replicates the traditional system of multiple election scrutineers in the digital world to ensure that no single party controls the election or the tally. In our system, election cryptographic keys are generated in a distributed fashion by a group of authorities that guarantee the secrecy of the vote and the correctness of the tallying process.

AgoraVoting has already been used in an election in spanish Congress (you can read the details in an article at The Guardian). To maintain and develop a voting system that aims to be trustworthy and cryptographically secure is not an easy task, but one that requires long hours of work. We will never be satisfied with the security of our system, and we already have lots of plans on how to improve it, to make it even more distributed and secure.

But we face some important challenges as well: for example the cryptographer that developed verificatum, the software that does the tally in AgoraVoting has privatized its development so we had to do a fork which is currently in maintenance mode. We need a solution for this, the help from good cryptographers and we might have to start an important crowdfunding campaign to fix this pressing problem. We also still have yet to find funding as we have been working on AgoraVoting in our free time. This is why we’re presently offering AgoraVoting to be used in other elections as a way to finance its development. Designers, usability experts, real cryptographers, testers, developers, translators, good communicators, donators, funding finders: we really appreciate your collaboration, support and ideas.

I’m not a pristine and perfect person who doesn’t suffer any struggle or incur in contradiction sometimes. My computer has a propietary BIOS, and some privative software installed like Google Talk browser plugin, or skype, and for practical reasons we have deployed in some occasion AgoraVoting with privative technology like Google Analytics. But I know that our goal is to make this the exception.

And remember: consider that this is probably the first time you heard about the privatization of democracy, even tough it has already been going on for a while. This is a matter of principles, and I want to be able to say that I raised awareness about this issue and positioned myself according to those principles in this political debate.  And if you value democracy as we do, you’ll find this is a battle worth fighting.


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