Friday, 1 February 2013

A Case for “Open Source” Law?

The law applies universally, and, therefore, has to be “executed” by all members of society; however, it is written in a language (a “code”) that is understood only by experts. We believe that this discrepancy is problematic. Furthermore, what is perhaps equally problematic is that lawmakers have difficulty receiving input from the members of society on how laws are performing. Toward addressing these problems, in this article, we advocate the creation of Lawpedia, a knowledge system based on the peer-production paradigm where laws are explained in plain language and feedback about the laws is gathered as one coherent input to the lawmakers and governments.
 The goals of Lawpedia
Lawpedia has two main goals: To lower the barriers of access to legal information and to provide feedback to the lawmakers on how laws are performing in society at large.
  • Lowering the barriers to understanding the law
Within the current system, individuals and organizations typically have to consult with lawyers to obtain legal advice before venturing in an enterprise. Although we believe that lawyers are and will be essential to the well-functioning of our institutions, we also believe that individuals and organizations should have the capability to do independent research in the legal matters that are of importance to them without having to obtain either a law degree or the financial capital to hire a lawyer. In other words, the barriers of access to legal information should be much lower than what they are today.
  • Providing feedback to lawmaking authorities
What’s more, providing easy access to legal information is bound to increase the participation of ordinary citizens to the democratic dialogue for the benefit of society as a whole. Lawpedia grew out of an idea whose goal was to answer the following question: how can lawmakers receive input from citizens on how laws are performing in practice?
There are two main challenges in answering this question. The first is that citizens should have a good understanding of the laws and their philosophy and the second is that citizens should provide feedback to the authorities about the laws’ impact on their lives. The ‘strawman’ answer to the latter challenge is for each citizen to write an independent piece of input; however, the sheer volume of the input is prohibitive for lawmakers to accurately process using current technology.
A system like Lawpedia would answer these challenges through providing an infrastructure that citizens can leverage not only to read and write about the law and its philosophy but also to provide concise feedback to the lawmakers in a single piece of text that everyone can read. Such an infrastructure can be based on the Internet, which would provide the networking capabilities required for this endeavor, and a Wiki, a collaborative editing tool which large groups of citizens may use to coordinate their editing activities (similar to that used in Wikipedia).
 The design principles of Lawpedia
Having set our high-level goals in proposing a knowledge and feedback system about the law, we briefly present in the following the fundamental design principles this system should be based on.
  • Global
Lawpedia is intended to be a global system so that different legal systems can easily cross-polinate. Through providing a rich global knowledge system, Lawpedia not only enables ordinary citizens to understand and express views on the legal matters in their area and country of residence, but it also enables experts to form a better and more comprehensive view of the legal systems of other jurisdictions to the benefit of all societies globally. In the initial stages of our research in the feasibility of Lawpedia, we plan to focus our effort on European law and the european legal system.
  • Decentralized
We envision that communities will self-organize around Lawpedia in a decentralized fashion, and, therefore, it is not our goal to prescribe a specific management system for editing the content. We do envision, however, two kinds of articles: namely, articles intending to explain the legal system and articles intending to provide feedback to the authorities about the legal system (or specific laws) toward improving their efficiency and functionality.
  • Free
In principle, all citizens should have access to Lawpedia irrespective of their income. In practice, this is not possible since access to Lawpedia requires access to the Internet. Our goal is, therefore, to provide free access toLawpedia to those members of society that have access to the Internet.
Concluding remarks
The emergence and expansion of the Internet has brought unprecedented opportunities for global collaboration and coordination to everyone’s benefit. As this article is being written Lawpedia is just an idea, which we put forward aspiring to start a prolific debate on the feasibility and value of building such a system for the benefit of social welfare, democratic values, and social equality in Europe and globally.
Ioannis Avramopoulos (National Technical University of Athens)

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