Imagine this: a time of skyrocketing inflation and a government so cash-strapped it ceases paying interest on the public debt. A commission of “wise men” is organized to put the governmental house in order. Instead of tinkering with the economy, they decide that what is called for is a revolution in government. And so they undertake a complete overhaul of the Constitution. That was the United States in the summer of 1787.
And this summer something comparable is happening in Iceland, but with a 21st century twist.The tiny country of only 320,000 people is becoming the first nation in history to use the Internet to create a new constitution. (Iceland goes online for new constitution) While a review of the constitution had been in the works for some time, the economic catastrophe in 2008 lent it popular urgency. With Iceland’s commercial banks crippled and the currency in a nose-dive, protests mounted and Iceland’s constitutional reformers had a bright idea.
Crowd-sourcing the Constitution
The project of involving the population of Iceland in the constitution making process started in April 2010 when a 25-member council was instituted to draft the new constitution. The council, elected by popular vote from a field of 522 candidates over the age of 18, used the help of a colossal 700-page report collected from a project which interviewed almost 1,000 Icelanders on such topics as separation of powers, foreign relations, and more.
Constitutional council member Thorvaldur Gylfason, stated: “The public sees the constitution come into being before their eyes…This is very different from old times where constitution makers found it better to find themselves a remote spot out of sight, out of touch.” (Think Philadelphia 1787, when 55 delegates from 12 states closed the curtains and locked the doors of the Pennsylvania State House and produced the Constitution of the United States.)
But times have changed and such closed-door tactics couldn’t work in our media-saturated culture. So instead the Icelandic Constitutional Council decided to deploy the power of social media and open up the debates to crowd-sourcing.
Gylfason explains that since the constitution will eventually go to a referendum, it would be easier if the people themselves were involved right from the start, not at the end.
Iceland’s Prime Minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir, agrees: “To me, it has long been clear that a comprehensive review of the constitution would only be carried out with the direct participation of the Icelandic people.”
So then the question was how best to get the people’s input, and the answer was social media. Because nearly two-thirds of the Icelandic people are actually on Facebook, it is the easiest way to directly involve the people. Those members of the public who want to participate simply provide general information submit recommendations, which are then approved by staff before being sent to the Council. Once the council approves a recommendation, they write into the draft of the constitution, which is always accessible online and open to discussion.
Iceland's major issues
Environmental issues took the lead with power projects, natural conservation and livestock protection, which has been added to the draft of the constitution. Gylfason added, “The proposed constitution defines access to clean and unspoiled nature as a human rights issue. This strengthens the position of those who wish to seek justice as a result of environmental damage.”
But the most controversial issue is the ownership of natural resources in Iceland. A proposed clause of the constitution deals with the issue of who owns natural resources in the country. In the 1980’s, a few companies gained fishing quotas for a nominal fee, which in turn gave them exclusive rights to fishing grounds—a beneficial and lucrative reward. A provision in the new constitution would make Iceland’s resources, including the fishing grounds, property of the nation.
The draft of the new constitution is due to be completed at the end of the month, although the council can extend it until July. After that, it will be sent to Iceland’s parliament for debate and approval, which would make Iceland the first nation to create and use a constitution from the Internet.
Could it happen here? Well, we know that social media has rocked the Middle East And increasingly it is becoming a part of every American politician’s tool-kit. Just this month a New York Republican state senator, Greg Ball, used Twitter to solicit advice on how to vote on the issue of legalizing gay marriage.
The Constitution’s 225th anniversary is coming up in 2012. Should we organize a Facebook convention to update it for the 21st century? Let us know what you think.Matt Riffe is a Public Programs Demonstrator at the National Constitution Center. He is the creator of the Center’s Presidential Trivia Game.