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Norwegian Voting and the Illusion of “Open Source”

I was interested to read about the new Norwegian electronic voting administration system, EVA, and a degree of controversy about whether the system can scale up to handle the number of votes expected in Oslo during the upcoming parliamentary elections. What I find more controversial is the claim that the system has been made available as “open source” software. In fact, a quick look at the licence is enough to confirm that the source code is really only available as “shared source”: something which people may be able to download and consult, but which withholds the freedoms that should be associated with open source software (or Free Software, as we should really call it).

So, here is why the usage of the term “open source” is dishonest in this particular case:

  • The rights offered to you (as opposed to the Norwegian authorities) cover only “testing, reviewing or evaluating the code”. (The authorities have geographical and usage restrictions placed on them.)
  • The licence restricts use to “non-commercial purposes”.
  • Anything else you might want to do requires you to get “written approval” from the vendors of the different parts of the system in question.
  • The software is encumbered by patents, but there is no patent grant.

Lost in Translation

In fairness, the page covering the source code does say the following about the use of the term “open source” which I have translated from the Norwegian:

When we use the term “open source”, we do not mean that the entire solution can be regarded as “free software”, meaning that you can download the software, inspect it, change it, and use it however you like. Anyone can download and inspect the source code, but it may only be used to carry out Norwegian elections. The solution should be available for research, however, and you are allowed to develop it further for such academic purposes.

Why translate from Norwegian when the English is underneath in the same page? Here’s why:

When we are using the term “open source code”, we do not say that the source code as a whole is what’s known as “open source”, that is code that can be freely downloaded, examined, changed and used. Anyone can download our source code, but it is only permittable to use it for elections in Norway. However, research on the solution is allowed and you are hence allowed to develop the system for an academic purpose.

In other words, while there are people involved who are clearly aware of what Free Software is, they apparently reserve the right to misuse the term “open source” to mean something other than what it was intended to mean. By consulting the Norwegian text first, I even give them the benefit of the doubt, but the contradiction of saying that something both is and is not something else should have awakened a degree of guilt that this could be regarded as deception.

Open Season

Now, one may argue that the Open Source Initiative should have been more aggressive in upholding its own brand and making sure that “open source” really does act as a guarantee of openness, but the “open” prefix is perhaps one of the most abused terms in the field of computing, and thus one might conclude that the OSI were fighting a losing battle from the outset. Of course, people might claim that the term “free software” is ambiguous or vague, which is why I prefer to write it as Free Software: the use of capital letters should at least get English readers unfamiliar with the term to wonder whether there is more involved than the mere juxtaposition of two widely-used words.

In Norwegian, “fri programvare” communicates something closer to what is meant by Free Software: the “fri” does not generally mean “for free” or “gratis”, but rather communicates a notion of freedom. I imagine that those who translated the text quoted above need to improve their terminology dictionary. Nevertheless, this does not excuse anyone who takes advantage of the potential ambiguity in the common sense perception of the term to promote something that has only superficial similarities to Free Software.

The Good, the Bad, and the Evry

I suppose we should welcome increased transparency in such important systems, and we should encourage more of the same in other areas. Nevertheless, with a substantial amount of activity in the field of electronic voting, particularly in the academic realm and in response to high-profile scandals (with some researchers even apparently experiencing persecution for their work), one has to wonder why the Norwegian government is not willing to work on genuinely open, Free Software electronic voting systems instead of partnering with commercial interests who, by advertising patent coverage, potentially threaten research in this area and thus obstruct societal progress, accountability and democracy.

One might suggest that the involvement of EDB ErgoGroup, now known as Evry, provides some answers to questions about how and where taxpayer money gets spent. With substantial state involvement in the company, either through the state-owned postal monopoly or the partly-state-owned incumbent telephone operator, one cannot help thinking that this is yet another attempt to funnel money to the usual beneficiaries of public contracts and to pick winners in an international market for electronic voting systems. Maybe, with voting problems, banking system problems and the resulting customer dissatisfaction, public departments and ministries think that this vendor needs all the help it can get, despite being appointed to a dominant position in the nation’s infrastructure and technology industry to the point of it all being rather anti-competitive. When the financial sector starts talking of monopolies, maybe the responsible adults need to intervene to bring a degree of proper functioning to the marketplace.

But regardless of who became involved and their own rewards for doing so, the Norwegian ministry responsible for this deception should be ashamed of itself! How about genuinely participating in and advancing the research and development of voting systems that everyone on the planet can freely use instead of issuing dishonest press releases and patronising accounts of how Norway doesn’t really need to learn from anyone? Because, by releasing patent-encumbered “shared source” and calling it “open source”, some decision makers and their communications staff clearly need lessons in at least one area: telling the truth.

An Aside

I also find it distasteful that the documentation hosted on the government’s electoral site has adverts for proprietary software embedded in it, but I doubt that those working in the Microsoft monoculture even notice their presence. These people may be using taxpayer money to go shopping for proprietary products, but I do not see why they should then be advertising those products to us as well using our money.

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