You are hereFast Company: Beyond SOPA: Rep. Darrell Issa's Big Plans For Digitizing Democracy

Fast Company: Beyond SOPA: Rep. Darrell Issa's Big Plans For Digitizing Democracy

-By Gregory Ferenstein

December 19, 2011- Over the past six months, Issa's launched an interactive subcommittee livestream, produced a new form of online polling, and sponsored a bill to make government spending trackable.

Engineer and congressional Republican firebrand Darrell Issa is leveraging his supporters' collective outrage against a contentious anti-piracy bill, SOPA, to showcase his new experimental crowdsourcing legislative platform. "Project Madison" invites the legions of angry technology firms and policy wonks to construct their own version of an alternative anti-piracy bill on a new online platform.

Project Madison is just one of a handful of ideas bubbling in Issa's laboratory of open government: Over the last six months, he's launched an interactive subcommittee livestream, published a new form of online polling, and sponsored a bill to make government spending trackable.

To be clear, his experiments often serve to advance a brazen political agenda. And Issa could be seen as an unlikely champion of transparency. And digital democracy has had a difficult time gaining traction. And yet Issa publicly pledges to open the halls of Congress, at least some of them, to America's netizens.

Crowdsourcing Rage Against Anti-Piracy Legislation

The smooth ride to victory for a pair of anti-piracy bills, SOPA and Protect IP, hit a debilitating roadblock after a clever grassroots effort drew attention to the potential unintended consequences of allowing the government to shut down websites that trafficked (even unwittingly) in pirated content. "You could have Yahoo or Google or any of these sites shut down, even though 99.9% of their material was completely legitimate," argued Issa, at a Facebook co-sponsored "hackathon" in the U.S. Capitol Building earlier this month.

Supporters of SOPA argue that such apocalyptic claims are overblown, and that tough measures are necessary to halt the spread of counterfeit goods and Napster-like copyright infringement.

Issa, unconvinced, and frustrated by his colleagues' exclusion of SOPA's technology critics from expert testimony, launched the interactive legislation platform Project Madison to give an unconventional voice to his supporters outside of Capitol Hill. Speaking about the website, Issa tells Fast Company, "Effectively what you have is a hearing with every single one of the individuals who wants to participate there. You would have had every tech company able to weigh in with their comments and potential changes in the bill."

Project Madison is a stripped-down interactive blogging platform, which allows citizens to select individual passages of legislation, and strike or add their own language, with comments for each suggestion. Citizens are encouraged to like or dislike each change, with the most popular suggestions rising to the top. Each page also has embedded Facebook and Twitter buttons that link to individual amendments.

Crowdsourcing policy has been attempted around the world, from Iceland's new constitution to federal legislation in Brazil, but such one-off experiments are yet to find a sustainable balance between lawmaker interest and citizen expertise. Brazil's wiki-legislation experiment, for instance, was largely dismissed by lawmakers who felt that citizens could not fully understand the legal ramifications of the laws they proposed. Issa is hopeful that the crowd can bring attention to the very best amendments, helping his staff sort through the inevitable torrent of suggestions.

Thus, Madison-inspired amendments have no legally binding authority. "We're a Republic. We're supposed to be responsible for the final product," admits Issa. However, "better input will make for better legislation by members."

Additionally, given the inconspicuous financial backing of SOPA, Issa hopes that the transparency of Madison will reveal the once-hidden influence of influential lobbyists. "Today, very powerful interest groups weigh in on all legislation." He told the hackathon audience, "Under our Madison initiative, those groups...will be tracked. They're input will be noted and appreciated, but the world will know see what their input was in real-time."