Tabish Khair in The Hindu
It happened in December 1841 near Reading, England. A Great Western Railway luggage train travelling from London Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads station had just entered Sonning Cutting. Rain had loosened the soil next to the track, which had caused mud to spill on to the track and cover it. This forced the broad gauge locomotive, containing three third-class passenger carriages and some heavy goods wagons, to derail. Eight passengers died on the spot and many were seriously injured. One passenger died later in hospital.
The tragedy set in process a largely unremarked legal change: it led to the abolishment of ‘deodands’. Deodands were penalties imposed on ‘moving objects that caused deaths’. After the Sonning Cutting accident, a deodand of £1,000 (about £100,000 today) was imposed on the train engine. This was, however, never paid (how could it be?), and five years later deodands were abolished.
From our perspective, this marks a significant change: from objects associated and controlled by humans to objects with much more leverage of their own. From a dropped box or a mismanaged horse carriage to a derailed engine. In 1841, deodands existed in a world that had changed. Trains marked not just the increase of pace while travelling, they also enabled a kind of tragedy which was difficult to imagine in an age of horses: now dozens, soon hundreds, of bodies could be mangled in a single accident. Blame for a derailed engine was a different matter than blame for a brick dropped from a window or an overturned carriage.
An opportunity and a danger
I start with this example to highlight the obvious fact that all technological developments come with some advantages and dangers. A society that ignores the former for the latter stays stuck in time, but a society that ignores the latter for the former might well plunge down a precipice.
Electronic voting machines represent such an opportunity — and danger. But because too much capital is invested in selling and replicating these systems, the opportunities and advantages are currently drummed up more than the dangers. Electronic voting machines have been accused of advertent or inadvertent ‘flaws’ in many countries, including India. But governments argue that some malfunctioning is inevitable when we use voting systems in vast lands with great educational disparity.
But let us talk about Denmark. Denmark is an egalitarian country of only six million people, all of whom receive basically the same kind of education until high school, and can choose to go to university free of charge. It has a high literacy rate and its politicians are at least theoretically more accountable than those of India or the U.S. It also has a high voting percentage.
And yet, recently, a small controversy erupted in Denmark. The fact that it is only a small controversy is frightening — because it has to do with the very nature of democracy, and Danes are a proudly democratic people. The largely neo-liberal government of Denmark decided to put the partly electronic voting system of Denmark up for a bid between rival companies. Three companies applied, including the public-owned company that has provided these services in the past. Then the government lowered the maximum bid amount. This forced two of the companies — including the public-owned one — to withdraw. The single company that stayed in the fray could submit a cheaper offer because it already runs similar voting systems in a number of countries — where the system has been accused of malfunction or vulnerability to tinkering.
As this was a private corporation, questions were asked in the Danish Parliament about its ownership. The Parliament was wrongly assured by a minister that it was a Danish company. When the major Danish daily, Politiken, traced the company’s head office to a tax-haven island off South America, the government promised more information.
Who are the owners?
But in the process, a vital factor seems to have been overlooked — not just by members of the Danish government, which is not surprising, but also by many of its critics. It is this: the island on which the company is registered permits companies not to disclose their ownership. In other words, the Danish voting system might be produced by a company whose real owners are invisible. Surely, there is something seriously wrong about the increasing vulnerability of democracies to the digitalised chicanery of invisible or half-visible corporate owners? Surely it is legitimate for citizens to demand to know the real owners of such companies? For instance, would a company controlled by the Russian mafia or the Koch brothers of the U.S., with their history of lobbied interference in democratic matters, be a neutral player and a reliable service provider?
As trains came into being, not only were ineffective laws, like that of deodands, remade or abandoned, new laws were put in place to ensure safety and accountability. Today, with the locomotive of digitalisation rushing at us, we largely lack a concerted effort to protect democracy against its dangers. Electronic voting systems need far greater scrutiny that those who are singing the siren songs of ‘progress and digitalisation’ want us to realise. It is time to plug our ears, and ask some hard questions — in every country of the world.