November 15, 2007 | Becky Hogge

Electoral Commission: "e-voting not a mature technology"

Many thanks to Glyn for watching, and transcribing the most interesting bits of, the Scottish Affairs Committee public evidence session in the House of Commons earlier this week. The Open Rights Group were particularly heartened by these words from Peter Wardle, Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission:

"Ron Gould sets his face firmly against [e-voting] for the time being and we would agree with that. We think e-voting is not a mature technology yet and does not command sufficient confidence to be deployed."

This statement sits in stark contrast to the views expressed by the Government on Monday, when they ignored the fundamental failings observed in recent e-voting trials, and the analysis of computer security experts, to instead support "the continued investigation into the benefits of electronic voting including remote electronic voting".

The public evidence session was called by the Committee to examine how voters’ interests can be protected, following the publication of the Gould Review into the Scottish elections in May.

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Open Source Summit Review

The resounding message of the Olswang's and Greenberg Traurig's Friday Open Source Summit (PDF) was that software patents are bad for business. Bruce Perens's message against software patents and that the European Patent Litigation Agreement (EPLA) should not become a reality was echoed throughout the day by numerous speakers to be restated once again during Simon Phipps closing keynote. The main argument was that these patents hinder software development because of their high transaction costs, and that Europe can maintain advantages by not allowing these patents (available in the US and elsewhere) on its shores. Naturally enough, there wasn't anyone calling for the abolition of patents, only as they relate to software. But software patents weren't the only theme of the day. Bruce Perens - Opening keynote Perens is one of a handful of early and influential 'founders' of free and open source software (FOSS) and he gave an entertaining and informative overview of the benefits of FOSS and how they fit in with a company's business model. The key for any business is to look at what is the "differentiating software" -- the model or software that makes the business different from others. For non-differentiating software open source is key as it can help control costs while delivering a robust architecture. Beyond his call against software patents, he suggested that the UK and Europe could use a law requiring open source software to at least be considered for (presumably) public purchasing. Heather Meeker, of Greenberg Traurig, gave an excellent overview of the legal side of FOSS licensing. Jim Markwith of Microsoft concentrated on issues surrounding open source in a mergers and acquisition (M&A) context. Often one of the issues is finding inappropriate (copied w/o permission) code in FOSS projects. Many of the problems that he sees in the M&A role at Microsoft are a result of poor IP management and not open source per se. As regards software patents, he only stated that Microsoft takes a different position than the other speakers. On the GPLv3, he did note that "GPLv2 has built up a legal understanding over the past fifteen years and now v3 means that they don't have that understanding." Nigel Swycher, Olswang and chair of the event, and Kat McCabe, Black Duck, both further reviewed FOSS within the M&A context. Black Duck makes a product that reviews and audits software code to make sure that it does not contain illegally copied code. In the afternoon Jan Wildeboer, Red Hat, and Pieter Hintjens, iMatix, both further made the case against software patents and open source business models. Hintjens had the notable quote that the GPL is "an 'ultra capitalist tool' because it allows dual licensing a commercial option plus the GPL version." Dietmar Tallroth, Nokia, discussed some of the practical aspects of managing open source software through his experiences as the legal director of open source and licensing at Nokia. David Wood from Symbian gave an overview of open source and smartphones. John Powell, Alfresco Software, got back to one of the main themes of the conference. From the conference site:

The software development and licensing landscape has changed, and the US are perceived to be leading the way. The Summit seeks to address this imbalance.
Powell blamed the close ties and use of the English language for waves and waves of US commercial interests following a proprietary licensing model for crushing both the UK's indigenous software industry and free and open source software development. In short, because of the lack of a language barrier, UK companies and public sector organisations bought into the FUD against FOSS and thus never got off the ground. Now however is the time for the pendulum to swing the other way and for a UK FOSS community and use to dramatically take off. Graham Taylor, Openforum Europe, discussed open standards and mentioned that in his opinion the UK government has been largely absent when compared to its EU counterparts at European meetings on open standards, open source. Michael Robinson, Deloitte, covered how they saved large amounts of money and introduced greater stability by introducing open source into the Oyster card system for London's transport. Simon Phipps, Sun Microsystems, closed the day with a slight restatement of the day's theme against software patents. He wasn't against them per se, however he thought that their granting should be greatly tightened so that they were very hard to get. There was still some room for their use if limited in this way. He did however note that trade marks are the next wave of legal problems for the FOSS community and that this would be the most troublesome area moving forward. In addition, he gave a load of practical advice on using FOSS within a company and how to relate to the greater open source community. The day was well attended by a diverse set of lawyers, academics, developers and others. A definite tip of the hat to Olswang and their partners on the event Greenberg Traurig for the day.

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November 13, 2007 | Becky Hogge

Open Rights Group dismayed by Ministry of Justice response on e-voting

In the May 2007 local elections Open Rights Group observers, accredited by the Electoral Commission, took part in the monitoring of pilot electronic voting and electronic counting schemes. We observed serious failings in the process. Since then, further problems have come to light in other countries leading to many electronic voting solutions being banned or withdrawn. In light of this, yesterday's Government response to an Electoral Commission report is of great concern.

While the Government acknowledges some of the Electoral Commission recommendations for extending implementation periods for systems, it has ignored the fundamental failings observed in trials so far. It has ignored the analysis by computer security experts that shows the technology for secure computer-mediated voting does not currently exist, let alone a secure system for remote electronic voting. Remote voting systems also threaten the privacy of voting, allowing third parties to coerce and influence other voters, particularly within their household.

The only bright spot is that there is a reliable method that permits the secure operation of electronic vote-counting machines: this requires the performing of hand counts on statistical samples and comparing results with the machine tally to detect errors or fraud. Far less brightly, our experience last May was that e-counting didn't have these checks, was rather expensive, and even turned out to be considerably slower than a manual count would have been.

But back to yesterday's Government response. It states that:

"All the pilots supported successful elections... all pilots had comprehensive contingency plans to ensure that electors were not disenfranchised and retained their option of a paper ballot."

This is not the considered view of the observers present at these elections who saw signifcant problems which included disenfranchisement, with voters turned away from the polling station when they found themselves unable to vote by telephone or online (see Open Rights Group, May 2007 Election Report [pdf], page 25).

The Electoral Commission's report made a great deal of sense, in that it made clear their desire to see "a robust, publicly available strategy that has been subject to extensive consultation" before any further pilots took place.

The Government's refusal to halt its pilots is therefore of great concern and reflects a disconnect between Government policy, the evidence and current expert thinking in the field. If the Government's goal of "evidence based policymaking" is to be upheld, then a public debate about the role technology has to play in our electoral process is long overdue. A scheduled public consultation on the introduction of e-voting would be a welcome development.

However, the Government's response to the Electoral Commission's report makes it clear that, from their point of view, this question has already been answered: e-voting is the way forward and the imperative now is to "support [the] implementation of a modernisation strategy", ie to make it work. What public consultation they will engage in will be focused around not if but how e-voting should be introduced. They refuse to accept, despite evidence from the UK and from abroad, that e-voting may not be a viable or desirable area of pursuit.

Elections are one of the most complicated areas it is possible to conceive of to which to apply digital technology. Not only must the system be robust and easy to use, it must ensure voters' anonymity and privacy, yet be transparent and auditable, and be completely secure against both external tampering and fraud by employees, consultants and the outsourced workers often used to develop components of the system.

A single software or hardware engineer can bias marginal seats a percentage point or two and there is a low probability of a professionally executed fraud being detected. In comparison, while fraud is possible with traditional voting systems any large scale fraud would require huge manpower and be difficult to conceal. We are told that e-voting will increase participation, yet the pilots tell a story of voter turnout increased marginally, if at all. The risks posed to our democracy by the introduction of e-voting outweigh these unproven benefits considerably.

Every voter expects their vote to count, and to count once. Until there is consensus that that expectation can be met, remote electronic voting should be reserved for the purposes for which it is fit - naming cats on Blue Peter and voting on the X factor.

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November 09, 2007 | Becky Hogge

iPlayer: Open Rights Group on Groklaw

My interview with Sean Daly at Groklaw went online this morning:

Q: Now, let's talk about DRM for a moment. It seems that the current situation the BBC finds itself in with the iPlayer is largely due to the choice to use DRM. My understanding is that without DRM, the rights holders of third-party producers of television programs which are leased to the BBC would withold their programs from online distribution. What do you think is the solution to this? Should those programs just be taken offline?

Becky Hogge: OK, so you're right to identify the problem; in fact you've got it in a nutshell. The BBC is having to negotiate with the people who own the rights in the programs that it broadcasts, because the BBC doesn't own all those rights. For a start, it's bound to use 25% of its commissioning budget to commission programs from independent producers, or "indies" as they're called in the industry. And those indies, most of them, keep the rights, and, like you say, lease them to the BBC for broadcast in a certain window.

Equally, some of the BBC content that the BBC produces itself has got all sorts of complicated rights issues associated with it. That's when the actors, and the cameramen, and all the people that go into it don't necessarily sign over all the rights to the BBC in perpetuity. So this is a really, really difficult problem for the BBC. But at the Open Rights Group, we think that the BBC needs to be tackling this problem head on. Because if it doesn't, it's going to keep having to use digital rights management. And digital rights management is slowly but surely going to eke away the way it can fulfill its public service remit.

This isn't just about a small group of Linux users who can't access iPlayer and are getting stroppy about it. Using DRM is going to push the BBC into more and more of a commercial environment. And what's more, DRM is always going to lead to the kind of platform neutrality issues that the BBC is experiencing now. If you think about it, Apple iTunes, which uses the Apple DRM, is already being accused of distorting the market by regulatory bodies inside the EU. And the BBC is always going to face these issues. Now, what it could do is it could start now to think creatively about how it's going to negotiate with indies and other rights holders in the future.

Read the interview in full here. This morning, I've been at the BBC Future Media and Technology building in White City, recording a podcast for BBC Backstage together with some of the technical team behind iPlayer and Mark Taylor from the Open Source Consortium. I'll post a link to that as soon as it's up.

Update: Here's the BBC Backstage podcast.

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November 01, 2007 | William Heath

ORG appoints new directors

We're delighted to announce three new appointments to the Open Rights board of directors.

Our recruitment process sought significant Board level experience including specific skills in areas such as law and finance. The new Directors possess both of these in spades: David Harris is a practicing IP / IT barrister, Dan McQuillan was Amnesty's web guru and Vijay Sodiwala brings substantial board level technology, media and telecommunications business experience. These appointments will nicely complement the existing range of skills and experience on our board.

Please have a read of their brief biographies, and the existing members, on our Board and Advisory Council page.

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October 31, 2007 | Michael Holloway

Supporters Update - October 2007

Here - for your enjoyment - is this month's Supporters Update.

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October 30, 2007 | Becky Hogge

Parents (and everyone else too): have your say in the Byron Review

The Byron Review is an independent review of the risks to children from exposure to potentially harmful or inappropriate material on the internet and in video games. ORG are preparing to submit a response and we're going to meet Tanya Byron, the clinical psychologist and star of BBC's House of Tiny Tearaways who's heading the review, at the beginning of next week. The deadline for ORG to submit a response is 30 November, and we need your help.

Questions for parents The call for evidence includes questions about the approaches parents are taking to making sure their children stay safe online or make the most out of video games. We'd like to gather the views and experiences of parents out there. Here are some examples of questions we need you to help us answer:

In what ways do parents seek to manage perceived risks of video gaming and how do they feel about their ability to do so?

What, if anything, needs to be changed in order to help children, young people and parents manage the potential or actual risks of going online and what are the pros and cons of different approaches?

You can read and respond to all the questions here.

Questions for everyone Also, there are some really open-ended questions for everyone, like "What are the benefits of video games for society?" or "What are the opportunities presented by the internet for children and young people?". ORG needs you to help answer these questions.

How to get involved The Review document is up on our interactive consultation tool, ready for your comments. Please take a look and add your views. There's also a wiki page for collecting resources.

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October 29, 2007 | Michael Holloway

Government wants to be open

The results of the Freedom of Information (FoI) consultation are now public. Contrary to initial proposals, and in line with ORG's position, FoI regulations will not be modified to discourage applications. Equally encouraging are three newly announced inquiries, all touted to 'make Government more open'.

As you may remember from our collaborative drafting process, proposals would have blocked many of the more politically sensitive FoI requests on the grounds of cost. Along with the majority of other respondents, we argued that penny pinching was contrary to the spirit of the legislation. Due in part at least to this public pressure the Government have been forced to listen, and cool off on these proposals.

In the very same announcement, Michael Wills MP also spoke of 3 separate moves toward a new culture of 'openness' in Government. First, they will review the '30-year-rule', which is the period after which government records become historical and are handed over to the The National Archives. Of more interest to ORG, is a review of 'the way we share and protect personal information in the public and private sector', to be led by representatives of the Information Commissioner's Office and the Wellcome Trust. Last but certainly not least, is a consultation on extending the application of FoI regulations to include 'a range of organisations that perform public functions' i.e. private contractors doing government works. Watch this space for regular updates on each of these issues.

The last one is particularly interesting. ORG would have used these kind of powers in our recent e-voting campaign, when some of our FoI applications were turned down on the grounds of commercial confidentiality because the materials were held by private firms.

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: E-voting's Unsolvable Problem-->
  • ORG Glasgow: A discussion of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
  • ORG Aberdeen: March Cryptonoise event
  • ORG North East: Take control of your online life
  • ORG Cambridge: Monthly March Meetup