Could crowdsourcing be a better way to make legislation?

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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

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