Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Software of the People, by the People for the People


“Why all Government and election management software should be built the Free and Open Source way”

ICT is increasingly playing a larger part in lubricating the democratic process and has tremendous potential to further enhance it. However much has also been said about the exploitation of software such as Facebook and Twitter to spread fake news and negatively deviate the public opinion of an electorate. We sometimes lose sight of the tremendous good software can provide to improve transparency, bridge communities and bring more power to the people. Unfortunately, software is complex for the lay voter, so how do we make sure it does the right thing and has no “Wizard of Oz” behind the scenes pulling the levers of bias?

In this article I hope to explain that a software development paradigm that has its origins in freedom and giving more power and rights to software users (aka ‘the people’) is also conceptually aligned with building our government systems in a democratic nation or republic.

This software is called Free and Open Source Software (or FOSS or Open Source for short), where Free stands for Freedom and its examples include popular browsers like Firefox, Operating Systems such as Linux and free online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. Firefox might not be your preferred choice for a browser and you might be using Chrome or Internet explorer, however there is a big difference in how Firefox is built. While the other two browsers are built by companies such as Microsoft and Google who have the final say, Firefox is built by a diverse community of volunteers and while the aspiration of the former two companies is to make a profit, the motive of the Mozilla Foundation which coordinates Firefox is to protect your privacy and to make sure the Internet is kept free. So if privacy and protection of your rights is your priority, then I recommend you go with Open Source Firefox.

To pick an acute example in Government, if there is any software that should go through similar scrutiny in a democratic nation it is election management software. No bias should be introduced into the election process and that includes the software which runs it, lest it be accused of playing a role in king-making.

Such software should not belong to one company; it cannot be opaque on how it works and it should be built by a representative diversity of people representing the electorate. Such is not possible with popular software that you getfrom companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft or Apple. Such software should adhere to three principles of the title above that I slightly modified from the famous Gettysburg quote by Abraham Lincoln.

Principle 1: Software (Owned) of the people

While most software in the world that you are used to such as Microsoft Office belongs to one company (you never own it, instead you lease it), who decides how the software should work. The software which runs Government policy adn the election process should ideally belong to the people. Any citizen of a nation where it is being used should be able to get a copy of the code and analyse it or get someone to analyse it on their behalf. For them to do this freely they need to have ownership of the software for free. Open Source software is built on the premise of using copyright law to make sure that all users have the right to get the software code and inspect it freely by law. Anyway Government software is ultimately built with Tax payers money so it should be a public good and you should have every right to inspect it.

Principle 2: Software (Built) by the people

This software cannot be built by one company, one ethnic group or one political party. Rather, it has to be built by a diverse group of interested parties. Any citizen who has the required software development skills should be welcome to participate in its development as a public service. The entire process of decision-makers should be very transparent so any biases are removed, if they get introduced intentionally (or unintentionally, as often is the case).

Open Source welcomes open participation, but one problem is that opening up so largely leads to analysis-paralysis which occurs when there are too many decision-makers (or naysayers) and less actual doers. This is the political equivalent of a hung Parliament. Instead, what has proven to work time and again in Open Source is a meritocracy of doers. In other words, everyone is welcome to participate but those who contribute the most get greater power to make decisions. IMO Fair enough as it still does not let us take away the right to audit the result.

Principle 3: For the people

The entire electorate should be invited to test the software if they wish to make sure it is suitable for their understanding of what a democracy should be. They should be welcome to provide feedback as users and be able to review the decisions made transparently. Only through this public trial and review will trust in the software be built.

Open Source makes the users (or Citizans) a valued part of the community and your inspection here does not have to be at a skin-deep level. You (or a developer you trust) have every legal right without asking for permission to take it apart and inspect it for anything you are unhappy with and recommend and contribute alternative approachs. 

Free and Open Source software and the foundations that operate them follow the principles above and though the exact process by which the Open Source software is governed might vary slightly, it is by far better, more transparent and much more auditable by the public than proprietary software.

Security not through Obscurity

Many might come to an opinion that exposing the source code and working of such election software will make it vulnerable to hacking. Whilst that might be the case with a physical safe, this is not the case with software as just as there are people who can find hacks, there are also many who can participate and contribute a patch to address that vulnerability immidiately (unlike a safe). This is one key reason the Open Source Linux operating system and BSD Operating System are the most secure Operating Systems in comparison to their proprietary counterparts. 

Governance of software for Governance

The exact governance model for Open Source varies through at the end of the day the end-result is transparently auditable by copyright law. On one side of the spectrum are commercial open source models for companies like RedHat/IBM/Google/AWS and on the other is the pure community oriented meritocracies such as the one run by Debian and Apache. 

The latter is more aligned to Gov Software as it has a lot more transparency where decisions are voted on and documented transparently and includes deciding the annual leader, electing sub-commitees, on the roadmap, new polices, design and all the way down to what specific lines of code go into the product, but all these decisions are made a lot faster digitally.

In Summary

Free and Open Source Software has it’s root in Freedom and is naturally aligned for the development of Goverment software, partiularly that which run the election and policy making process. With such software all Citizens have certain inalienable freedoms protect by (Copyright) law to ensure there is no bias and to improve trust. You find suprising parallels to democratic processes in how such Open Source global communities like Apache and Debain run, but decisions here are made a lot faster digitally. One wonders weather we can make Government itself run a lot more effeciently as a Open Source project :-)


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About Author

Chamindra de Silva has been working in the ICT industry for 20 years and he is presently a VP, Engineering working on FinTech/Banking based in London. After the Asian Tsunami in 2004 he got involved in Open Source source software, where it was applied for humanitarian response and lead the Sahana Disaster Management project that has been deployed to support disaster response around the world and won this Sri Lanka n innovation many international awards. He continues to be a Director on the Board of the Sahana Foundation. He is a graduate of Oxford University with a degree in Engineering and Computer Science.