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[liberationtech] The privatization of democracy

Eduardo Robles Elvira edulix at
Wed Nov 13 02:03:41 PST 2013

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.

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 have
proven to be an effective way to ensure that the whole voting process
preserves its legitimacy. Smalls 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

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 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 attach for 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

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 require
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
on 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

Eduardo Robles Elvira     +34 668 824 393            skype: edulix2    it's not magic, it's wadobo!

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