However, the crowdsourcing of OPEN fits neatly within the landscape of using online "collaborative consultation" that is emerging internationally but has been slow to come to the U.S. These initiatives use web 2.0 technologies that were designed for non-political purposes, but specifically with low barriers to entry and facilitating engagement in mind, to involve citizens in the political process. The first recorded example is from 2007 when the New Zealand Police Commissioner put the widely criticized 1958 Police Act online as a wiki and invited people to edit it as they saw fit. Similarly, in 2009, the Melbourne city government set up "Future Melbourne," a wiki for residents to collaboratively engage in drafting the city's official ten-year plan. There are many other examples, but by and large they have remained niche enterprises. The extent to which they exist in the U.S. is mostly limited to "submit comment" email forms on agency websites.
So, Wyden and Issa are on to something, but how well does their platform actually work and what kind of participation is it facilitating? Here the picture is less clear. When Issa unveiled the project he was quoted in RollCall as saying:
We developed Madison to empower those shut out from the process that produced SOPA and PIPA. It is an ongoing experiment in direct digital democracy, but the introduced version of the OPEN Act is proof that crowdsourcing can deliver better bills and a more accountable government.
Several things are worth noting. OPEN is a much better bill than SOPA, but much of the improvements were in place before it was put online, the result of SOPA criticism. But, on the other hand, many participants on Madison did make substantive contributions, including catching an error where the draft referenced the wrong piece of existing legislation, streamlining the procedure the bill dictates, and fixing a provision to acknowledge that domain owner and registrant are not necessarily the same thing. The importance of these contributions should not be underrated. They demonstrate that in an open venue the public is able to make informed and meaningful contributions. Moreover, these contributions are specific and contextual to the bill rather than the form-letter or opinion rants that are common when consultation is separate from drafting and people submit stand-alone statements in support or opposition.
However, the platform suffers from several flaws. First of all, engagement was relatively low -- 150 people participated. That's 150 more than would have had a say without Madison, and that should be commended, but it is not a big number. One contributing factor to this is that participation required setting up an account. This introduces an additional barrier to entry. While some form of registration is understandable as a mechanism to decrease vandalism and spam, a site-specific account is not the best option here. It would have been technically trivial to allow for users to authenticate through Twitter, Facebook, Disqus, Google etc. in addition to signing up directly on the site if they preferred. When the name of the game is lowering barriers to entry, every barrier -- even seemingly trivial ones -- matters, and this may have made a difference.