Icelanders approve their crowdsourced constitution

Geothermal power in Iceland

A constitution is a deeply serious thing: the bedrock of a country’s identity. So Iceland’s decision to let the general populace participate in the drafting of its new constitution – via social media such as Facebook and Twitter – was a bold move.

And it seems to be paying off. On Saturday the country held a referendum asking voters six questions about the draft, the first of which was whether they wanted to go ahead with using it as the basis for their new constitution. Two thirds voted yes.

Which makes sense, if you think about it. Give the people a chance to feed into the drafting, taking advantage of the internet’s convenience and low barriers, and they’ll stand behind the result.

Out of the ashes

Here’s a quick run-down of the background to all this. Iceland’s banking system collapsed right at the start of the financial crisis, taking the country’s government with it. The new leadership decided to go the open route, not least because secretive dealings were largely to blame for the banking fiasco.

There were two technologically interesting spinoffs of this situation. One was the creation of the Modern Media Initiative (now the International Modern Media Institute), a Wikileaks-inspired free speech drive – the idea here is to turn Iceland into an haven for free speech by inviting media organizations from around the world to host their sites in Iceland’s green data centers and enjoy the country’s strong new protections for whistleblowers and the like.

The other was the constitutional crowdsourcing. Iceland’s old constitution was based on that of former master Denmark and was seen as out-of-date, so 25 citizens were brought into into a Constitutional Council to help create a new one. The council took the ideas raised online by their fellow citizens and delivered the resulting draft in July last year. It took a while to ask the voting public at large what it thought of the result, but Iceland now has its answer to that question.

According to reports, nearly half of Iceland’s 235,000 eligible voters took part in the referendum, and 66 percent of those people said they wanted the new official constitution to be based on the crowdsourced draft.

But that result is non-binding, and the parliament now has to decide whether or not it’s going to turn the draft into reality.

As in the case of Finland’s crowdsourced laws, elected representatives are given the final say over proposals made online. In a representative democracy, that’s pretty much how things should work – if you elect people to represent you, you’re entrusting them with doing just that.

The important thing in both the Icelandic and Finnish cases is that technology is being used to give more normal people a say, while ensuring that the politicians are forced to listen and cannot just sweep popular proposals under the carpet. Because the clever thing with crowdsourcing is that the proposals are public and open and impossible to ignore.

Now it’s up to the Icelandic parliament to show it’s taking this process seriously. We won’t have long to wait to see whether or not this is the case: the constitution is supposed to be finalized before the next election, in the spring of 2013.

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