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Raise your hand if you’ve heard (or said) a variation of one of these tired truisms: “Politics is dominated by lobbyists and spending.” “Policy making has degenerated into a glorified yelling match.” “Our country has never been more polarized.” “Today’s online communities foster echo chambers of the like-minded rather than fora for discussion.”

Is your hand raised? Because ours certainly are.

The only thing anyone can seem to agree on today is that the current U.S. political system is broken. We’re mired in a confluence of corporate spending, ugly discourse, and voter voicelessness.

LexPop provides an open public platform for tackling these problems.

Meet LexPop

LexPop allows participants to collaborate in the creation of legislative bills — bills that are later introduced by actual legislators. At its most basic, LexPop is a Wikipedia for creating public policy. (There’s a lot more to it than that, as we’ll explain below.) In our first project, Massachusetts Representative Tom Sannicandro (D-Ashland) — one of those actual legislators we’re talking about — has agreed to introduce a net neutrality bill created on LexPop.

LexPop has two primary goals. Our first goal is to give the public a voice. We hope to provide a space for ordinary people (i.e., people who can’t afford to hire lobbyists) to contribute substantively to public policy — to give their best ideas a fair hearing.

As you know, lobbyists write the bulk of the legislation coming out of our various legislatures. LexPop provides a voxlobbylane.jpgcounterpoint to the current model — a way for the public to provide legislators with voter-created model legislation. A legitimate, 21st-century democracy will invite the public into meaningful collaboration, and LexPop is part of the march in that direction.

Our second goal is to determine the best way to achieve the first. That is, a compelling movement is attempting to take governance into the 21st century, and organizations like PopVox and OpenCongress are doing great work. Several organizations and initiatives, including a government-sponsored effort in Brazil, are trying to make it possible for citizens to help write legislation. But at this point, nobody knows the best way to make the co-creation of laws a reality. Our work will contribute to figuring out what’s possible, what works, and what doesn’t.

How LexPop works

There are two ways to use LexPop. Our primary focus is on Policy Drives — where legislators pledge to introduce bills written on the site. Policy Drives are somewhat analogous to what goes on at Wikipedia, but LexPop provides more structure through the use of three specific phases:

  • Phase 1: Initial discussion, debate, argument, and research;
  • Phase 2: Outlining the bill in plain English (for those who aren’t regular readers of Vox PopuLII); and
  • Phase 3: Transforming the ‘plain English’ outline into legislative text.

voxnet-neutrality.jpgWe’re currently in the discussion phase of our first Policy Drive, devoted to the net neutrality bill Rep. Sannicandro has agreed to introduce.

A second option on LexPop is working on a “WikiBill.” WikiBills are written via the familiar, wide-open wiki model, and they offer a spot for the public to create model legislation on their own, without the three-phase structure of Policy Drives, and without a legislator-sponsor. WikiBill creators collaborate through a free-for-all process, very similar to Wikipedia — start from scratch and cobble the bill together. There’s no end to the WikiBill process, so participants can create a bill, submit it to their representatives, modify it, and submit it again.

Yeah, sounds great. But can this really work?

It’s usually at this point in the conversation that questions start coming up. LexPop, and similar projects, are largely operating in uncharted waters, and so there’s good reason to think the project sounds ambitious, perhaps even crazy. Below are a few of the questions we’re asked most often, along with our preliminary answers.

Will anyone contribute to this sort of effort?
We think so. (Obviously.)

Here’s why: Ordinary people collaborate on difficult projects online — especially online — often with great success. Take Linux, the open source operating system. The vast majority of people who work on Linux aren’t paid; they’ve incrementally created it in their spare time.

Are you reading this blog on Firefox? Well, guess what? Your browser was built almost entirely by volunteers.

At LexPop, we’re asking people who are passionate about certain issues to give some of their free time to developing better policy, in the same way engineers have asked them to help develop software. Sure, it will be complicated, but people are smart, and given the right opportunity and tools, they’ll be able to (once again) create something extraordinary.

Politics is too controversial — How can you expect people to come to consensus on one answer?
To answer this question, we like to look to Jesus — the “Jesus” page on Wikipedia, that is.

There are plenty of controversial topics addressed on Wikipedia, but it’s the pages for these topics that are often the most accurate. Wikipedians who edit the Jesus page know the topic is controversial, so they back up what they say with facts — otherwise, the crowd of users won’t allow it. Over time, the Jesus page has turned into something that most users are pretty happy about. And this is the similarity between LexPop and Wikipedia: They’re both about collaboratively writing something that isn’t perfect in the eyes of any one participant, but is better than the alternative.

Fine, but isn’t there a better model than a wiki?
This is one of the things we’re trying to figure out, and one of the things with which we need your help. We’re starting with a modified wiki (the three phases), but as we learn, we’ll adapt. A wiki allows a certain type of collaboration (the kind found on Wikipedia), but it may not be the best way to collaborate. Is the three-step process we’re using the right model, or should the phases be combined? With your help, we’ll find out — and we promise to share our findings.

Will legislation created on LexPop be representative?
We don’t claim that bills made on LexPop will be perfectly representative, and we’re not trying to make representative democracy obsolete. After a bill is written on the site, it will still have to go through the same bill-into-law process as every other piece of legislation.

voxexperts.jpgBut LexPop will certainly be more representative than the system we have now. With LexPop, non-profit organizations with valuable knowledge of an issue, passionate experts well-versed on a topic, and regular voters (Joes the Plumber, if you will) will no longer be shut out of the process. Right now, we live in a world where participation too often means a voter pours out her heart in a letter and receives a form response that the intended recipient didn’t write, read, or even sign. Our system for adding more voices to lawmaking may not be perfect, but it will be less imperfect than the current political system.

LexPop provides a first draft of legislation that’s written by people, not by lobbyists. This is our value-add; we’re opening a new channel for public participation, and taking a step toward a more legitimate and deliberative democracy.

But we need your helpvoxmeeting_brains.jpg

And we need it big time. For a project like this to work, we need participants.

If you’re interested in collaborative democracy, please get involved in the conversation. You’ll be helping even if you post only one comment. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in net neutrality, we encourage you to learn more about it on the site, and then make sure you come back when we have a Policy Drive on your favorite issue.

Also, we’d be grateful if you spread the word about our site. Like us on Facebook, Tweet about LexPop (@LexPopOrg), blog about us, or, even better, let us write a guest blog post on your site (Thanks, VoxPopuLII !).

We’d also love for you to tell us what we’re doing wrong. LexPop is perfect in neither theory nor practice. So please help us make LexPop and, ultimately, deliberative democracy better with your feedback. We have a Google Group for discussion about LexPop, or you can contact us through the website.

Coda

LexPop is a platform for public engagement and empowerment. LexPop provides a space for discussion-driven public policy and a stronger, more agile democracy. LexPop is about more voices. Add yours.

Matt_BacaMatt Baca is a joint J.D./M.P.A. student at New York University School of Law and the Harvard Kennedy School. He’s interested law, public policy, government 2.0, and the Rockies (team and mountains).

Olin_Grant_ParkerOlin Parker is a Master’s in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School. His interests include disability policy, education reform, the states of Kansas and Louisiana, and his 17 month-old daughter.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor in chief is Robert Richards.

Supreme Court Building, IndiaIndian Kanoon is a free search engine for Indian law, providing access to more than 1.4 million central laws, and judgments from The Supreme Court of India, 24 High Courts, 17 law tribunals, constituent assembly debates, law commission reports, and a few law journals.

The development of Indian Kanoon began in the summer of 2007 and was publicly announced on 4 January 2008. Developing this service was a part-time project when I was working towards my doctorate degree in Computer Science at the University of Michigan under of guidance of Professor Farnam Jahanian of Arbor Networks fame. My work on Indian Kanoon continues to be a part-time affair because of my full-time job at Yahoo! India (Bangalore). Keep in mind, however, that I don’t have a law background,  nor am I an expert on information retrieval. My PhD thesis is entitled Context-Aware Network Security.

The Genesis

Indian Kanoon was started as a result of my curiosity about publicly available law data. In a blog article, Indian Kanoon – The road so far and the road ahead, written a year after the launch of Indian Kanoon, I explained how the project was started, how it ran during the first year, and the promises for the next year.

When I was considering starting Indian Kanoon, the idea of free Indian law search was not new. Prashant Iyengar, a law student from NALSAR Hyderabad, borgestotallibrary.jpgfaced the same problem. The law data was available but the search tools were far from satisfactory. So he started OpenJudis to provide search tools for Indian law data that were publicly available. He traces the availability of government data and the development of OpenJudis in detail in his VoxPopuLII post, Confessions of a Legal Info-holic.

Prashant Iyengar traces the genesis, successes, and impacts of Indian Kanoon in a more detailed fashion in his 2010 report, Free Access to Law in India – Is it Here to Stay?

The Goal

I have to make it clear that Indian Kanoon was started in a very informal fashion; the goals of Indian Kanoon were not well established at the outset. The broadest goal for the project came to me while I was writing the “About” page of Indian Kanoon. From this point on, the goals for Indian Kanoon started to crystallize. The second paragraph of this page summed it up as follows:

india-fear-justice.jpg“Even when laws empower citizens in a large number of ways, a significant fraction of the population is completely ignorant of their rights and privileges. As a result, common people are afraid of going to police and rarely go to court to seek justice. People continue to live under fear of unknown laws and a corrupt police.”

The Legal Thirst

During the first year after the launch of Indian Kanoon, one constant doubt that lingered in the minds of everyone familiar with the project (including me) concerned just how many people really needed a tool like Indian Kanoon. After all, this was a very specialized tool, which quite possibly would be useful only to lawyers or law students. But what constantly surprises me is the increasing number of users of the Website.  Indian Kanoon now has roughly half a million users per month, and the number keeps growing.

The obvious question is: Why is this legal thirst — this desire for access to full text of the law — arising in India now? I can think of umpteen reasons, such as an increase in the number of Indian citizens getting on the Internet, which is proving to be a better access medium than libraries; or that the general media awareness of law, or the spread of blogging culture, is fueling this desire.voxthirstgateofindia.jpg

On further reflection, I think there are two main drivers of this thirst for legal information. The first one is the resources now available for free and open access to law. Until very recently, most law resources in India were provided by libraries or Websites that charged a significant amount of money. In effect, they prohibited access to a significant portion of the population that wanted to look into legal issues. The average time spent per page on the Indian Kanoon Website is six minutes; this shows that most users actually read the legal text, and apparently find it easier to understand than they had previously expected. (This is precisely what I discovered when I began to read legal texts on a regular basis.)

The spread of the Internet, considered by itself, is not an important reason for the current thirst for law in India, in my view. Subscription-based legal Websites have been around for a while in India, but because of the pay-walls that they erected, none of them has been able to generate a strong user base. While the open nature of the Internet made it easy to compete against these providers, the availability of legal information free of charge — not just availability of the Internet — has removed huge barriers, both to start ups, and to access by the public.

The second major reason for this thirst for legal information — and for the traffic growth to Indian Kanoon — lies in technological advancement. Government websites and even private legal information providers in India are, generally, quite technologically deficient. To provide access to law documents, these providers typically have offered interfaces that are mere replicas of the library world. For example, our Supreme Court website allows searching for judgments by petitioner, respondent, case number, etc. While lawyers are often accustomed to using these interfaces, and of course understand these technical legal terms,indiasupreme_court_files.gif requiring prior knowledge of this kind of technical legal information as a prerequisite for performing a search raises a big barrier to access by common people. Further, the free-text search engines provided by these Websites have no notion of relevance. So while the technology world has significantly advanced in the areas of text search and relevance, government-based — and, to some extent, private, fee-based — legal resources in India have remained tied to stone-age technology.

Better Technology Improves Access

Allowing users to try and test any search terms that they have in mind, and providing a relevant set of links in response to their queries, significantly reduces the need for users to understand technical legal information as a prerequisite for reading and comprehending the law of the land. So, overall, I think advances in technology, some of which have been introduced by Indian Kanoon, are responsible for fostering a desire to read the law, and for affording more people access to the legal resources of India.

The Road Ahead

Considering, however, that fear of unknown laws remains in the minds of large numbers of the Indian people, now is not the time to gloat over the initial success of IndianKanoon. The task of Indian Kanoon is far from complete, and certainly more needs to be done to make searching for legal information by ordinary people easy and effective.

Sushant Sinha runs the search engine Indian Kanoon and currently works on the document processing team for Yahoo! India. Earlier he earned his PhD in Computer Science from the University of Michigan under the guidance of Professor Farnam Jahanian. He received his bachelor and masters degrees in computer science from IIT Madras, Chennai and was born and brought up in Jamshedpur, India. He was recently named one of “18 Young Innovators under 35 in India” by MIT’s Technology Review India.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor in chief is Robert Richards.