22 September 2022

With the rapid proliferation of open source software over the past decade, many DemTech wonks have been quick to herald the opportunities they offer as the saviors of democracy in the digital space. The idea of millions of young, energetic people working to create something for the public good certainly warms a spot in one’s heart and reinvigorates one’s trust in humanity. After the data scandals of the past decades brought on by centralized tech companies such as Facebook and Google, it is natural for us to want something that we hope can save democracy rather than tear it apart.

To revolt against these mega multinational tech firms, it is easy to take an “eat the rich” approach and effectively distribute their digital bits amongst the masses with the hope that from the carnage they will create something better that is truly “by the people, for the people.” However, before we entirely discard the positive impact that accountable software vendors can have in the public space, we should more thoroughly vet our eager new bedfellow: open source software. 

Limited Ownership Means Limited Innovation

Thomas Hobbes remarked in De Cive: “In the state of nature, profit is the measure of right.” While this may sound cynical, the altruistic side of human nature has clear limits and rarely results in technological innovation in and of itself. Sure, it was easy for the owner of Patagonia to give away his company’s shares to save the environment – but that was only after he had made his own billions. Success begets altruism, but for the young and hungry who have a desire to change the world, ideals are seldom enough.

Expecting future generations to simply devote their time and energy to the creation of amazing products and then simply give them away without any compensation is not only naive, it is senseless. We want to ensure that future tech solutions truly address and solve the challenges posed to democratic institutions in the future, not just rely on novel side projects. Big challenges require big solutions, and these cannot be tackled by a decentralized team without any clear focus or goal.

Open Source Could Expose Software Vulnerabilities

If the fear surrounding the security of Dominion’s voting machines in the US do not provide enough foreshadow, imagine the source code of every data collection and voting tool used by public offices plastered online for anyone to access. Open source tools are not developed in a closed environment and often use numerous developers around the globe. It only takes one developer with malicious intent to insert malware or a security flaw that could later be exploited.

While the more positive sides of open source development are constantly praised – e.g. the idea that more developers = more scrutiny = more transparency = more security – the reality is that this decentralization of operations actually creates more vulnerabilities for public institutions and offices. The added layer of security presented by the closed development of software from a vendor with good safety practices is certain to help users sleep a bit more soundly at night – especially when handling massive amounts of sensitive citizen data.

Spiraling Costs

The absence of high up-front costs for open source solutions may be tempting – especially when one is dealing with public money. However, as is often the case in political situations, the long term costs are easy to overlook in favor of the short term gains. Unlike with a purchased software solution, open source solutions require that the user take responsibility for fixing any errors or issues that may arise for their circumstances. Open source software does not have a vendor behind it to whom public offices could reach out for a fix. Instead, users are stuck having to either burn time and money in-house to create a solution or hire expensive external help.

And don’t forget – further development of open source products is entirely dependent on the will of a development team or community. There is a high chance that open source solutions will be orphaned after a time, leaving users back where they started: looking for a new solution. With a private solution, there is an incentive for the vendor to constantly update and keep its product functional for clients.

Usability: Hopes vs. Reality

The most glaring gap between the hope and the reality of open source solutions for public office is simply their usability. Most people will never look at the source code of a platform used in their office. To actually know how to implement a functional program from open source code is a very technical and highly in-demand skill. At present, there are simply not enough developers with this skillset to go around. Expecting every governmental, political and public office to be able to effectively use open sourced solutions to create safe, reliable, and secure software is nothing more than a pipe dream. Until every public office has a full staff that includes (highly paid) knowledgeable coders and developers, and the decision makers in those offices fully understand the implications and consequences of the actions of their coders and developers, open source software is not a sustainable solution.

One thing is certain: democratic and public processes will continue to manifest more and more in the digital space, whether that be registering one’s vehicle or voting for one’s elected officials. This is a good thing – the internet does make democratic participation easier and more accessible to a larger number of people. Concurrently, the speed at which technology develops is growing exponentially while those wishing to do harm are able to attack and compromise these systems with increasing sophistication. Reliability, safety, and security are key for public institutions and offices to not only maintain citizen confidence, but to safeguard our democracy all together.

While open source is often triumphed as open, free and inherently democratic, it also lacks any system of basic protection or regulation without which, any hint of democracy will be ultimately erased. While we, of course, all want to see our public officials act as good stewards of taxpayer dollars, I would personally prefer to see those dollars go to a reputable vendor as opposed to being thrown down a rabbit hole of never-ending development and security problems. Open source will always have its place in the field of DemTech – many fantastic ideas have started there. But any open source project worth its salt has ultimately gone on to be co-opted by a larger tech firm as part of proprietary software or has been able to become a successful vendor on its own. And those vendors who are able to “hack it” prove that Hobbes was right all along.

Christoph Schleifer is the inventor of Cambuildr and an expert in the use of the latest technology in digital campaigns. He and his team were named “Development Team of the Year” by the renowned Campaigns and Elections magazine. Christoph has worked on over 3,000 campaigns in Austria and throughout Europe.

Read the other side of this discussion in Romy Grasgruber-Kerl’s Guest Article Why Open Source is a Must for Digital Participation Platforms

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