The OPEN Act as an experiment in digital democracy

By John D. Sutter, CNN

(CNN) --- With all the buzz about SOPA and PIPA you may have missed another important acronym: OPEN.

The OPEN Act is being touted by its sponsor as the moderate alternative to those other two anti-piracy bills, which are causing all kinds of controversy in U.S. Congress and on the Internet. Sites from Wikipedia to Google and -- you're on the Internet, you've already seen all this -- were protesting those other two bills by blacking out or altering their sites on Wednesday.

The reason I bring up the OPEN Act is not because it's a stellar piece of legislation. It may or may not be. But what it definitely represents is a new way of thinking about the legislative process -- a Wiki-ed out, crowdsourced, digitized version of bill writing.

(Full disclosure: CNN's parent company, Time Warner, is among the industry supporters of SOPA).

    The main thing that makes the OPEN Act different is its presentation. The full text of the proposed bill is available at an easy-to-use website, KeepTheWebOpen.com. And, most important, people who go to that website can annotate the bill with comments and suggestions for its author, much like they would a Wikipedia document. There's a field where you can submit your e-mail address to receive updates about changes to the bill and its path through the maze that is our legislative process.

    GOOD Magazine argues in a recent post that this online presentation is a revolution in participatory democracy:

    The site functions like a combination of Wikipedia and any familiar commenting system: Click a sentence in the bill and add your changes. Though ultimate authorship will fall to (Darrell) Issa, user markups and comments are expected to make their way to the draft presented to the congressional committee. Whether or not the bill makes any headway in Congress, the hands-on drafting of the OPEN Act offers a glimpse of the future of constituent engagement and legislative sausage-making.

    Maybe that doesn't sound crazy-innovative. But it's way different from the norm.

    If you want to read the text of PIPA, the Senate's anti-piracy bill, you would go to a legislation search site called THOMAS, which is part of the Library of Congress. Same for SOPA. Sure, you can find the text of the bills on that site, but multiple versions are often listed and it's hard to tell which amendments have been included or rejected. Further, there's no way to leave a comment in the text of the bill. It's not even clear where you would send a comment, unless you look up the author of those bills and then go to their individual websites, find their contact information etc etc. You get the point. It's harder.

    The OPEN Act's website makes the democratic process just a bit easier -- encouraging more input from citizens. So far, more than 150 people have annotated or commented on the proposed bill text, which isn't a huge number but is significant. And there are features that allow visitors to read and comment on SOPA and PIPA, too.

    As GOOD notes, several other governments have experimented with crowdsourced democracy. Texas tried it on the issue of "payday lending," as the Texas Tribune writes. Iceland tried to crowdsource its constitution, says The Guardian.

    The online software that powers the OPEN Act's website -- called "Madison" -- could be used again.

    Salon writer Nancy Scola says the Wikipedia for legislation is already having an impact on how informed the public is.

     ... During the Judiciary Committee’s markup of the bill in late December, Keep the Web Open streamed the hearing feed and paired it with a Twitter stream of commentary from folks watching along at home. Issa’s office later reported that, on the first day of markup, there were some 138,000 instances of people watching the proceedings coming from the U.S. alone.

    Sure, the Wikipedia blackout and the Google porn-like black bars are getting lots of chatter online this week. But the lasting impact of the SOPA/PIPA debate may not be the protest or even the legislation up for debate.

    It could be a new process for letting the public shape legislation.