A Website with a Constitution

I have recently joined a web project called Independence Year, or iYear for short.  We have nearly completed a “civic networking” platform enabling U.S. citizens to influence government by turning their shared vision into collective action.

As innovative as our web tools are, they are a distant second to the legal technology we’re developing.

If our platform becomes as populous and powerful as we expect it to be, it’s certain to draw a lot of attention from folks who want to monetize it or shut it down.  To ensure the continued openness of this enterprise, we’ve placed all of the code and intellectual property (logos and such) within an “Internet Services Irrevocable Non-corporeal Trust”.  There’s no board, no owner, and no tangible assets – just a trustee with limited powers.  (Visit iyear.us/about for further explanation.)

Not only does the trust keep the platform safe from outside influence, it also keeps it safe from the authoritarian impulses of its inventors.  At the end of Independence Year (defined as 4 July 2008 to 4 July 2009), we will turn over governance of the platform to its users.  We have begun this process by drafting a constitution.

I met yesterday with organizational democracy guru Alex Linsker and iYear Founder Britt Blaser.  We began by making a clear distinction that the constitution specifies only the process by which decisions are made about how the platform is designed.  It does not specify in any way how users will use the platform (except in the indirect yet substantial way that architecture influences behavior).

We decided to model our governance system loosely on the branches of the U.S. government, starting with the legislative.  We’ve quite literally applied Lawrence Lessig’s axiom “Code is Law”.  Every change to the code will first be proposed as a bill, which must be passed by the legislature before it is implemented. I’ll be thinking today about whether and how bills should be screened before they are brought up for vote, who exactly gets to vote, and how many votes are needed to reach a quorum.

The judicial branch will be trusted with settling disputes and reviewing all bills to ensure that they do not contravene the principles of openness that underpin our constitution.  As for the executive branch – well, we’re not quite sure what that will be.  We just know that we want to avoid installing another Decider like the one we have in the White House now.

We’re extremely excited by this project, and I hope that we can blaze a trail for virtual communities all over the world.  We’ll release our first draft to the world on November 1st.  It will be hosted on the MixedInk collaborative writing tool so that everyone can write and rate different drafts of the constitution.  I’ll be sure to post again when the time approaches.

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