Freedom and Democracy in Software

By: Corey Henderson  |  Our Voice Contributor

Whenever you install software, you’re asked to read a lengthy license agreement. If you’re like most people, you don’t. You click on the “I Agree” button and move on without a second thought. Most people don’t care about the many nuanced legal issues surrounding liability, privacy, and security – or don’t know to care.

When it comes to civic engagement, however- things tend to matter a little more than normal. Software licenses in particular can spell doom for citizen’s and activist’s rights in the activities they use them in. The last thing you want when fighting the good fight is to get caught up in technicalities that end up ruining your efforts. Losing the data that YOU collected due to the terms of service of the application you used isn’t pretty.

At Our Voice USA, we believe in freedom, and we believe in democracy. People have the right to know how government works, how to participate, and the legal processes by which things work. This is no different when it comes to the software that we write. That is why we have chose a specific set of licenses to use in any application we make available to the public. Here we describe what they are, why we chose them, and what that means for you, the citizen.

In short, if you’re just a typical end-user of our software, you don’t have to worry about a hidden demon in the license.

Open Source

All of the below licenses fall under the category of “open source software”. This means you can get the source code to the application, make modifications yourself, and share those modifications with others. The reason we went this route should be clear- open source means freedom for the user, and the code itself becomes democratized. It not only gives the utility of the software into the hands of the user, but also the power to change it to their own personal needs. And, perhaps most importantly, any data you collect with said software is yours, not someone else’s.

GNU Public License, Version 3 or later

We picked this for software running on someone’s own device, such as their computer or phone.

Otherwise known as “Copyleft” (as opposed to “Copyright”), this “GPL” License is the epitome of anti-establishment when it comes to software. You get to see the code, make changes to it, and re-distribute those changes, so long as you follow the distribution rules. And that’s where things get interesting; re-distribution. Most people don’t do it, so there’s nothing special required of them to comply with the license. Just use the software and all is well in the world.

The special thing about the re-distribution terms is it prevents those with special interests from nefariously taking the software and giving it to others as if it were their own. We’re fine with people making changes to the software, so long as they disclose and share what changes they made with those they give the software to. Essentially, the end-user has full freedom, and any middle man is barred from hiding what they’ve done to it.

No, you’re not required to give your software changes back to Our Voice USA. While we’d love to see what you did, and collaborate
with you on your changes, you can keep the changes private from the world at large. You’re just required to make available the changes you made to anyone you give the software to. This means you can enhance the software for yourself or your organization without “giving up your hard work”. Your users simply have the right to know where the software came from, and what you did to it.

Now, for Web-base Software (website UIs, APIs, anything accessible via the web), things change a little. Using a website technically isn’t software distribution, so for software that runs on someone else’s device, we picked:

Affero GNU Public License, Version 3 or later

Let’s be clear here; even if software *can* be used on the open web, doesn’t mean that it *has* to be. Like the GPL, you only are required to share your source code edits to those who you make your software available to. So if only your group uses it in your own private network, you only need to make the source available to those who use it.

So again, full freedom to any end-users, and middle-men have to comply with distribution restrictions.

Finally, there’s something called “library” software that gets embedded in other programs. For that kind of software we write, we chose:

The MIT License

Under this license, you can do basically anything you want, other than claim it as wholly your own. We do this with library software because we don’t want anyone to have any doubt about what they have to comply with when using it. When we write a library, it’s usually to talk to our code over a network via someone else’s code, so in that context we have no vested interest in protecting the rights of an end-user, and at the same time don’t want to dissuade someone from using the library in their own original code.

Custom Licensing

From time to time we get an inquiry about someone wanting to purchase a custom license for our software to, in short, re-brand it and/or customize features to it. While technically we can do this because we hold the copyright, we shouldn’t because of the nature of our organization as a 501(c)(3) charity. There are some very specific things we cannot do, and become involved in a political campaign is one.

Even if it would be legal for us to issue a license to a 3rd party such as a consultant to get around this, we believe that doing so would be in bad faith to the purpose of the laws surrounding charitable donations. We are non-partisan, and strictly so. To benefit a specific person or group over another is counter to the inclusive and transparent methodology for which we stand.

However, we are willing to work with anyone on adding features to our apps, and provide the necessary documentation for using the tech.

The one catch is that these additions must be made available to everyone. That’s the nature of being an open source organization.

In summary, we want to make things open for transparency, encourage collaboration, all the while protect the end-user’s rights.

Freedom and Democracy in Software.

We hope you agree.

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