Iceland is Crowdsourcing its Constitution

June 10th, 2011

Iceland has turned to social media to solicit contributions from the public as to how a new Constitution should be drafted.

From the Guardian:

As the country recovers from the financial crisis that saw the collapse of its banks and government, it is using social media to get its citizens to share their ideas as to what the new document should contain.

“I believe this is the first time a constitution is being drafted basically on the internet,” said Thorvaldur Gylfason, member of Iceland’s constitutional council.

“The public sees the constitution come into being before their eyes … This is very different from old times where constitution makers sometimes found it better to find themselves a remote spot out of sight, out of touch.”

How are they actually doing this?

In creating the new document, the council has been posting draft clauses on its website every week since the project launched in April. The public can comment underneath or join a discussion on the council’s Facebook page.

The council also has a Twitter accounta YouTube page where interviews with its members are regularly posted, and a Flickr account containing pictures of the 25 members at work, all intended to maximise interaction with citizens.

Meetings of the council are open to the public and streamed live on to the website and Facebook page. The latter has more than 1,300 likes in a country of 320,000 people.

The crowdsourcing follows a national forum last year where 950 randomly selected people spent a day discussing the constitution. If the committee has its way the draft bill, due to be ready at the end of July, will be put to a referendum without any changes imposed by parliament – so it will genuinely be a document by the people, for the people.

Given that it was intended to go to a referendum, Gylfason said, the idea was that the public should be involved from the start of the process and not just at the end. Social media is seen as a way of making that happen with Iceland’s population among the world’s most computer-literate. Two-thirds of its people are on Facebook.

This is fascinating for a number of reasons. First, let’s put on our originalist hats. Originalist often try to discern what the original public meaning of a provision of the Constitution is. To accomplish this, they look to things like dictionaries, publications, pamphlets, speeches, etc. that could explicate how people understood something. Assume in 100 years that the highest court in Iceland (or whatever the equivalent body is) wants to understand a provision. They will, presumably, have to scan through Facebook and Twitter to see what people wrote. Now that raises a second question. People, who know that courts of the future (assume this is how it works in Iceland) will turn to this extrinsic material have a perverse incentive to litter the blogosphere with understandings of the bill different from the understanding of society at large (kind of like how Senators and Representative drop random statements in the legislative record that supports their position). Would Courts then be free to read these statements as honest, unbiased statements of original public meaning?

Second, from a deliberative perspective, this document will truly be (more so than our Constitution at least) written by “We the People.” The opportunity cost of contribution to this document seems negligible, so participation by everyone is possible. On the flip side, from a public choice perspective, this makes constitutional capture really reasy, as various factions and interest groups can modify and edit the meaning of a provision with little cost.

Third, I wonder if we could ever have some type of direct democracy in the U.S. (assuming our Constitution permitted this, which it does not). I seem to recall that Ross Perot wanted some kind of push-button democracy, whereby people could vote by phone (how quaint) on how the government should act. Though, would I really want the important decisions in our government made by a bunch of Twitter junkies?

Interesting to see how this turns out.


H/T Some Ginger