Karthinking About the Fourth Branch

Crowdsourced legislation redefines the role of the citizenry

Karthink!

No, this isn’t another column about your duty to complain @Twitter and like the right videos on Facebook so that you can start your own grassroots political movement between response papers; it’s a column about real, active participation in the legislative process, so keep reading.

In the 21st century, political participation should mean a lot more than its traditional definition of fundraising, letter-writing, and the occasional vote. However, it should also mean a lot more than just promoting some of your thoughts on your friends’ newsfeeds. No doubt, a lot of credit is due to social media for movements like the Arab Spring in places where people have no political voice and the old-school media is perhaps even less democratic than the government. But this is ’Murrrca, dammit! In a functional democracy where legislators really do—for the most part—want to hear and represent their constituents as best they can, we have the luxury to do a lot more with the internet than trend a few of our scattered emotions in hopes that someone important will notice and start a discussion in the analog world.

My premise is this: screaming about something in the digital universe is hardly the best way to make your voice heard in a tangible way. It’s certainly an important tool for generating exposure—even in free societies where your voice is only one of many—but unless the Internet gods decide to take your post viral, you’re just another statistic trending along with everyone else, and an ambiguous one, at that. Even if ten million people tweet, for instance, #justlikebieber, who knows whether the kid is loved or loathed? I’ve learned the hard way that the Internet has never been good with sarcasm or nuance. But there’s an alternative—one that has the power to revolutionize the way legislation itself is crafted and its quality, too. This week, I’d like to Karthink about that.

Probably the greatest thing to emerge out of last season’s Stop Online Piracy Act fiasco was a little bill called the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act. I’m a huge fan of protecting intellectual property, and I’m proud to say I buy all my music online for triple Amazon rewards points. I haven’t actually read OPEN, so I don’t know how I feel about it yet, but that’s neither here nor there. The bill’s true innovation is—for lack of a better word—its wikification.

On December 8, shortly after OPEN’s sponsors finished its first draft, they made the visionary decision to post the text online at keepthewebopen.com. The website’s well-designed platform, named Madison after the founding father himself, gave anyone who wanted it the ability to attach a comment or suggest a revision to any individual clause of the bill. It displayed the two types of feedback separately, was connected to Facebook, and allowed users to vote on, tweet, or otherwise share what they saw.

A little over a month later, on January 18, the sponsors introduced an updated version of the bill on the House floor that actually took into account user comments and even included several of the better user-generated revisions. The updated bill was then reposted to the website for further public revision with the user-generated improvements that had already been implemented highlighted in blue.

This unusual measure is an amazing development in American politics. Rather than combing through mountains of tweets and Facebook posts to find the rare good idea that could then be transformed into workable legislation, Senators Darrell E. Issa and Ron L. Wyden, who introduced the bill, simply had to browse a list of specific, targeted recommendations to harvest popular expertise and innovation. Granted, Madison finds its maximal utility much farther along in the legal process than social media, but its impact on government by the people, for the people has the potential to be much more forceful.

It’s hard to imagine a future in which almost all bills are not open for public revision for some period of time. Not only would it allow Congress to access a much broader marketplace of ideas directly, but interest groups, affected parties, and the citizenry more broadly would also all have the best means yet of taking a real level of ownership over the legal process that is nominally their own. Moreover, in time, the current regime of legalese that hobbles public understanding of the written law might gradually fade away. The end result would me a more transparent, democratic, effective, and popular government.

The internet is finally sophisticated enough to provide a tool that allows us to contribute to the law in a much deeper way. The technology has been in place for over two decades, but the popular will to use the internet as a political tool has exploded just in the last few years. With both the means and the wherewithal, the people can now serve as a true fourth branch of government, or at least as a third chamber of Congress. Actually, maybe more of a subcommittee, but the point stands. New avenues for participation such as Madison definitely need refining, but already represent a promising way to let experts and laypeople alike do more to help their legislators craft better, more relevant, and more democratic law.

Karthik R. Kasaraneni ’12, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a chemistry concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

Tags