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Summary:

In an attempt to come up with better laws on copyright, Reddit is crowdsourcing the creation of a Free Internet Act, while Public Knowledge is trying to introduce its own alternatives. But will crowdsourcing work, or will it just add to the chaos and confusion?

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Crowdsourcing has proven to be a pretty good way to accomplish things that require a lot of input from different people, including the creation of encyclopedias and the financing of personal projects such as movies and comic books. But could it be used to create legislation as well? A couple of groups are hoping that it can: the online community Reddit, which was instrumental in raising awareness about the anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA, is trying to create a “Free Internet Act” that anyone can contribute to, and the nonprofit group Public Knowledge has just launched what it calls the “Internet Blueprint” to do something similar. But is crowdsourcing a solution to Washington bureaucracy, or will it just add to the chaos?

Reddit’s venture has been underway since just after the community — along with Wikipedia and dozens of other sites — went dark as a way of protesting the government’s support of SOPA and PIPA in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Those bills were both sidelined by their supporters in the legislature after the wave of popular outrage that Reddit was a part of, and the user who created the discussion thread that gave birth to the Free Internet Act (an Austrian user who goes by the name RoyalwithCheese22) said he was hoping to build on that momentum, and get the community to craft an alternative to SOPA and PIPA and other similar legislation aimed at the internet.

Could a realistic alternative to SOPA emerge from a Google Doc?

After a draft of the bill took shape on the Reddit thread, it was moved to a Google Docs file that is open for anyone to edit — on a recent visit, there were 30 other viewers, and several were editing the document simultaneously. Among the first notes in the document was one warning users not to deface or ruin the effort, a note that referred to “4chan trolls” (the online community that gave birth to LOLcats and the activist group Anonymous). Among a number of proposed edits was a note from a user going by the name “Downing Street Cat” that took issue with unnecessary capitalization of terms in the bill.

The rest of the bill includes sections on censorship, culpability, content removal, appropriate punishment for those who infringe on the law and the rights of the user. The section on culpability says: “If the content under considerations is a work that was partially or fully derived from another content under copyright, it is required that the derived should contain a minimum of 40% of the original content [and] be wholly comprised of sections of the original [and] not be a subtitled parody.” In the notes, however, someone else has written that this “isn’t very clear in what it intends, and realistically needs a full rewrite.”

The bills proposed by the Public Knowledge project, meanwhile, look and read much more like existing legislation and are an attempt by the nonprofit group to promote alternatives to SOPA and PIPA that have a chance of actually becoming law. The Internet Blueprint site has copies of the bills — such as one entitled “The Strengthening and Improving DMCA Safe Harbors Act,” which would penalize companies for issuing false takedown notices — and users can vote for the ones they like and even click a button to recommend them to their representative. The group is also looking for ideas for other bills, but says it will write them rather than letting anyone contribute the way Reddit does.

Some see crowdsourcing of legislation as a real alternative

It’s one thing to bring a community like the technology industry together via web campaigns to protest an existing or proposed law — but can those same impulses be used to actually create new ones? Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson wrote recently about the Reddit initiative, and how he and his partner Albert Wenger mentioned to a senator the idea of writing legislation in full public view as an alternative to the secretive process that came up with SOPA and PIPA. The senator’s response was that “such radical transparency wasn’t likely to develop in Washington any time soon,” and Wilson said that made him even more interested in pursuing efforts like the Reddit project.

Crowdsourced legislation does exist: the Icelandic parliament, for example, created a new constitution last year based in part on crowdsourced input, and an alternative to SOPA called OPEN was also developed using input from contributors via a website. But the laborious process of putting together a comprehensive piece of legislation — which would require hundreds of pages, legal footnotes and cross-checking with existing laws if it is to succeed in any real way — may simply not be compatible with existing crowdsourcing methods. Even Wikipedia has repeatedly had issues over the years with in-fighting and vandalism, and most of its entries are less than a page long. RoyalwithCheese22 has admitted that the process behind the Reddit bill has been slow and frustrating.

In addition to the difficulties associated with herding cats on the Internet, there’s also the risk that laws like the Free Internet Act will cater only to the technologically savvy — and therefore will become just special-interest bills like the ones that already get circulated in Washington by various groups. To its supporters, however, that would at least put Silicon Valley on equal footing with other interests, and the openness of the process could make the result even more palatable than the alternative. Whether the bill ever gets from Google Docs to Washington, however, remains to be seen.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Christian Scholz

  1. Hopefully the lunacy of 30-50 people simultaneously editing a document will give way to a more rational mechanism to structure open document drafting (ODD). (e.g. the one proposed by the Legislation Amendment in my book, “The Next 10 Amendments.”)

    The real competitor to what this generation of ODDs is doing isn’t legislation or legislators, it’s think tanks. The crowd efforts are essentially an open door think tank with virtually no barrier to entry and almost no structure. There is rational, effective ground between “last edit wins” and “you have no voice since you aren’t in the club.”

    Ideally ODDs evolve to grow a structure (sooner rather than later) that’s fitting the seriousness of the challenge these few high profile projects have undertaken.

    @DanFarfan

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  2. Huh? When did the term crowd-sourcing become a synonym with group-editing? Getting a crowd to fund a Kickstarter product is far, far different than using Kickstarter to invite anyone who wants to, to come over and design, engineer and manufacture your product.

    It has taken Wikipedia almost a decade of constant experimentation and struggle to develop what is a benign dictatorship and “invisible hand” that heavily filters the ignorance of crowds in the process of seeking the wisdom.

    Group-editing laws is a mis-guided effort, in my opinion. However, I’m all for anyone experimenting with it.

    There are many great efforts to develop online tools and processes that will enable all citizens, not just the rich and powerful, to participate in policy and advocacy and the legislative process. I’d look to efforts like the Macarthur Foundation-backed efforts at ExpertLabs.org, for instance, for models of “crowd-sourcing” citizen participation in public policy.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Rex — I agree that crowdfunding and crowd-editing are different, but both fall under the general heading of crowdsourcing I think (i.e., things that involve input from large groups of people). And I also agree that group-editing of laws will be, er… a challenge :-)

      And thanks for the mention of Expert Labs as well — I should have added them to the post, since they are doing some interesting stuff in this area.

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  3. internet has largely erased space and time …

    representative form of government in a centralized legislature was invented in and era where space and time were huge considerations

    that time has passe, and direct democracy is not only possible but desirable, if just to remove the bribing and lobbying

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  4. Interesting, but likely unconstitutional. There are many reasons the United States is a representative republic and not a democracy. If you think this is a good idea, you may want to read the Federalist Papers, specifically #10. The technology may be new, but the idea has failed every time it’s been tried over the course of many centuries. Madison wrote at length on the problems of a mob-rules democracy and Franklin perhaps put it best by saying that a democracy is “two wolves and a lamb deciding on what to have for lunch”.

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  5. Funny how the Government seeks to regulate the Internet and the Internet takes them down. Their not going to give up the battle now though, that they know the power of the Internet to unite the people. Senator Orrin Hatch suggested over a decade ago that the Government destroy a few hundred thousands computes remotely- and without due process- to combat online piracy. Could it lead to that?
    http://www.dethronehatch.com/orrin-hatch-is-no-friend-of-the-internet/

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  6. Geoff Middleberg Wednesday, February 29, 2012

    If people want to get involved in this debate that is great. That is what makes american democracy dynamic and interesting. I think we all value finding the balance between protecting intellectual property and the freedoms we hold dear. A final piece of legislation should seperate the bad actors from the well-intentioned so artists can get compensation for their work.

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  7. Nitin Borwankar Thursday, March 1, 2012

    Hi Mathew,

    Here’s a suggestion I made to Lawrence Lessig and is very relevant here. Drafting laws is useless unless they get on the legislative agenda. The ruling party controls what gets debated by controlling the legislative agenda. i.e. the list of potential laws up for discussion.
    You can crowdsource all you want but it will not make it if it is not on the agenda.
    So here’s the very highly leveraged thing to do – create a “digg-like” vote on what existing draft laws should be on the legislative agenda.
    This is a simple, scalable and powerful way to let those in power know what people think. It is also a powerful way to shine light on the laws that *are* on the legislative agenda. It also does not require any changes to the way things work – it just a) shines light b) expresses the will of the people in a tangible way.
    The process is subject to gaming to a certain extent but the community has learned ways to keep the impact of this to a minimum.
    My overall view is that radical changes to the power structure are not possible by expecting the power structure to change itself towards transparency.
    But it is possible to induce radical transparency from the outside just by using available data (eg legislative agenda) and tools (eg digg like voting) to focus the power of crowdsourcing on some Archimedean levers in the system.
    I believe the legislative agenda is such an Archimedean lever.

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    1. Thanks, Nitin — that sounds like an excellent idea.

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