crypto and public policy

Voting Observable By All: Open-Source Not Required

Filed under: Policy June 14, 2004 @ 7:04 pm

The debate on voting machines is raging. We’ve moved from pen and paper and physical levers to touch screen machines running Windows, and people are understandably worried. Who’s making sure the software counts the votes correctly? Do we really need to trust the voting machine vendors?

One argument is whether open-source software should play a role. Everyone agrees that open-source can’t solve every problem with electronic voting, but it certainly might help. There are fantastic efforts going on like the Open Voting Consortium. Though I am a huge supporter of open-source and free software, I believe open-source concepts might not be necessary in this particular case, at least not if we’re trying to solve the problem quickly.

Vendors want to make money. They currently cannot think of a way to make money if they release their “trade secrets” as open-source for all the world to see, modify, and reuse. Whether they’re right or wrong, they won’t budge on this topic: they want to keep the right to their code. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that any official will require election vendors to go open-source in the near future.

Meanwhile, computer experts want observable elections (among other things). Anyone with the proper skills should be able to observe how an election is operated and how the results are tabulated. The key concept here is “observable.”

These two issues are perfectly compatible, but once again we’ve gotten confused about intellectual property protection and we don’t see the obvious solution. Making source code publicly available for observation while keeping all commercial viability is trivial: just keep the copyright on the code, and distribute it under a license that forbids redistribution or commercial use. Fair use ensures that any expert can write a code review. After all, it’s how almost every book is distributed, right? Everyone can critique it, but no one else can make money off it.

One company has already figured it out: VoteHere publishes all of its source code online for evaluation purposes only. They rely on copyright and normal licensing to ensure no competitor takes their code. It’s simple. It’s obvious. And it should be required of every election vendor.

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