Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Iceland—the best response to 2008

Iceland took a quite different path in response to the financial meltdown of 2008.  For one thing, they actually threw some of their crooked bankers in jail.  But this was far from enough.  They realized that the financial catastrophe was partly the result of a systemic problem and set about to reform their society to prevent it from happening again.  So they decided to write a new constitution.  Even better, they used the tools of the Internet to enable real direct democracy.

Now Iceland has some advantages going into such an effort.  Not only does she have a nearly total literate population, but surprising numbers of her citizens are astonishing well-read.  She also has a 1000+ year democratic tradition.

Here's the story as written just before the vote on Saturday.


Icelanders vote on Internet-picked referendum issues

Icelanders began voting Saturday on six constitutional issues including the island’s natural resources and the state church. The topics at hand were chosen through an internet contribution system, in the first vote of its kind.

Icelanders vote Saturday in a consultative referendum on six constitution-related questions posed by a committee that has relied to an unprecedented degree on Internet contributions from the island's people.

The questions to be answered by a simple yes or no include the role of the country's natural resources and of the national church in a proposed draft new constitution. Voters will also be asked whether they want the committee's proposals to form the basis of a draft constitution.

The six questions were chosen by a committee of 25 ordinary citizens elected in 2010 to review the country's constitution: they in turn took to the Internet to solicit the views of their fellow Icelanders.

The draft legislation for a new constitution was submitted to the country's parliament, the Althing, at the end of July 2011. In May this year it was decided to seek the opinion of the island's inhabitants on six issues.

The country's basic law dates back to Iceland's independence from Denmark in 1944 and it has long been accepted that it needs revision.

Iceland's financial collapse in 2008 during the global economic crisis provoked huge social movements and the demand that any new constitution be drawn up by ordinary citizens became irresistible.

From April to July 2011 a popularly elected 25-strong group, drawn from different backgrounds, worked on a constitutional project and then put it online so people could contribute their ideas. Hundreds did so.

Beyond questions involving the country's state church and the ownership of natural resources Icelanders will be asked to vote on the country's future democratic system, in particular the use of referendums and the voting system.

"This weekend's election seeks above all to make society better and to eliminate the forces of corruption from it," the tabloid newspaper DY said Friday in an editorial.

"The constitution is everybody's business and should be written in each person's terms."

"The proposals of the constitutional committee .. are major improvements in the form of he country's government," Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir told the Althing Thursday.

"Should we make these proposals the basis of a new constitution? My answer is 'yes'", she said.

The opposition is calling for a 'no' vote. The Independence party, in power for much of the last century thinks the plan needs more detailed examination.

"It's up the elected parliament to take matters in hand," the party's vice-president Olof Nordal told state television. more
The results are in.  Note that the question with the widest margin of victory referred to public ownership of national resources.
A non-binding constitutional referendum was held in Iceland on 20 October 2012. Voters were asked whether they approved of six proposals included in a new draft constitution drawn up by the Icelandic Constitutional Assembly.  All six questions were approved by voters. The referendum consisted of six questions:

1) Do you wish the Constitution Council's proposals to form the basis of a new draft Constitution?

2) In the new Constitution, do you want natural resources that are not privately owned to be declared national property?

3) Would you like to see provisions in the new Constitution on an established (national) church in Iceland?

4) Would you like to see a provision in the new Constitution authorising the election of particular individuals to the Althingi more than is the case at present?

5) Would you like to see a provision in the new Constitution giving equal weight to votes cast in all parts of the country?

6) Would you like to see a provision in the new Constitution stating that a certain proportion of the electorate is able to demand that issues are put to a referendum?


Source: RÚV 
This analysis is an interesting look at the legitimacy of crowd-sourcing.  Never before has this even been tried.  Constitutions are serious things and writing them is a serious matter.  But look for yourself (pdf warning), this effort at a crowd-sourced constitution is quite remarkable.

Icelanders approve their crowdsourced constitution

BY David Meyer Oct 22, 2012

Iceland’s citizens were given a chance to help forge a new constitution for their country through Facebook and Twitter, so it’s not surprising that they backed the resulting draft. Now it’s over to the politicians.

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. more

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