Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Iceland Writes an Information Age Constitution

Few things are as exciting and periodically necessary for a democracy as writing a new constitution. Iceland is in the process of doing just that, and they are doing it with a social media twist.

The Icelandic Stjórnlagaráð or Constitutional Council has solicited public feedback from citizens and is adjusting its drafts accordingly. The Council explains its method and rationale as follows:
The Constitutional Council is eager to make sure the public can be up to date while the work is in progress. It's possible to see the developments in the text of a prospective proposition and make comments. Furthermore, the Constitutional Council has made it possible for the public to send messages and already numerous messages have been sent to the Council. All messages are published on the Council's website under the sender’s name (anonymous messages are not accepted) and the public can read and comment on each of them which has already created a lively discussion on the website.

In this way the Constitutional Council emphasises an open communication with the Icelandic nation and has given the people an opportunity to participate in the formation of a new Constitution of the Republic of Iceland. The Council's work can also be seen on the major communicative media such as Facebook, YouTube and Flickr. Every day short interviews with delegates are put on YouTube and Facebook. On Thursdays at 13:00 there is live broadcast from the Constitutional Council meetings on the webpage and on Facebook. There are also schedules for all meetings, all minutes from meetings of groups, the Board and the Council as well as the Council's work procedures. The webpage also has regular news from the Council's work as well as a weekly newsletter. Advertisements are published in the media encouraging the public to keep track of what is going on and to make comments.

That Iceland chose the digital route should come as no suprise—the country has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the world, and its voter participation rates are roughly double what is common in the United States. Still, it's an impressive maneuver for a country whose legislature, the Althingi, dates back to 930, making it the oldest existing parliament.

Should we expect any substantive surprises from this process? Perhaps it is too soon to tell, with the drafts still shifting wiki-style, but already some interesting ideas have emerged. (The current official English version is machine translated, so some of the following quotations may be awkward.)


The statement on transparency couldn't be clearer: "Governance must be transparent." The new constitution also requires that all "matters and documents held by government … be publicly accessible," which includes complaints made to the government as well as procedures for their redress. That Iceland would uphold press freedom and freedom of information—"anyone is free to gather and disseminate information"—is in keeping with the strong laws they passed last year to protect journalists and anonymous sources, with implications for WikiLeaks and other whistleblowers.


Education is a high priority, and the opening section has a passage on academic freedom: "It should be ensured by law the freedom of science, education, arts and education." There is also a guarantee that everyone will receive a public education, free of charge at the primary level. The spirit animating the education section falls in line with the tradition of civic humanism: "Education shall aim at the full development of each individual, critical thinking and awareness of rights and duties."


By far the most interesting language so far comes in the sections on ownership and natural resources. The overall sense of property rights is that "ownership is inviolable," while "exercise of ownership should not go against the public interest." At the same time, the "natural resources of Iceland are common and perpetual property of the nation. They should be utilized in a sustainable manner for the benefit of all citizens. No one can get them for permanent ownership or use." These clauses are driven by a belief that "Icelandic nature is inviolable. Each person must respect and protect. The utilization of common resources of the nation must act so that they are not diminished in the long term and the right of future generations is observed."

It would definitely be nice to see the "right to healthy environment, fresh water and unspoiled natural land, air and sea" enshrined in a new U.S. Constitution. As it stands, the current crop of Republican candidates has staked out a bizarre stance against environmental protection, despite the fact that the American public consistently supports clean air, clean water, and more renewable energy.

So the new Icelandic constitution may not be as radical as Bolivia granting rights to Mother Earth, but with its procedural innovations and a focus on sustainability and civic humanism, Iceland is certainly showing the world what twenty-first century democracy looks like:

[PHOTO CREDITS: Althingi by vovchychko (CC); Stjórnlagaráð by Stjórnlagaráð (CC).]

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