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A New Tool to Crowdsource Legislative Markup Comes From the U.S. House

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, December 7 2011

In the hopes of attracting the eyeballs — and maybe the comments and revisions — of Internet geeks, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) plan on Thursday to unveil their alternative to the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act with the help of a brand new tool allowing anyone to read, share and comment on parts of legislation.

Issa unveiled the tool, called MADISON, Wednesday at a hackathon event taking place in the Capitol Visitors Center.

In general, the point of the tool is to allow the user to mark up a given bill, leaving comments to justify the reasons for changes and amendments. Because each clause in a bill — not just the whole thing — has a permalink, people could in theory share specific provisions using social networks, email, carrier pigeon, whatever.

One of the main knocks on Congress' handling of the Stop Online Piracy Act is that the Hollywood lobby's interpretation of the facts has been allowed to run roughshod over the expertise of people with a better understanding of the Internet's inner workings. Most recently, The Atlantic quoted Harvard's Jonathan Zittrain as explaining that Congress needs to do its homework:

What Congress really needs to do, Zittrain said taking a step back from the anti-piracy legislation in question, is to do a little bit of fact-finding. So far, the debate around the best way of combatting piracy hasn't been too data-driven, and even the solutions -- so far, cutting off payment and ad networks seems to be the best weapon against pirating sites -- aren't necessarily solutions. So how do you come up with a better map? "Let's figure out in a rigorous way the scope of the problem here," Zittrain suggested. "It's one thing to beat the drums about jobs, about piracy. How about let's just figure out how big this problem is? I don't know of any source for that right now."

Madison is, in part, an effort to avoid the same fate for Issa and Wyden's OPEN legislation by giving Internet people a place to point out where Issa's proposed bill may be doing it wrong and to suggest other solutions. And it earned some plaudits Wednesday from the Sunlight Foundation's* John Wonderlich, who tweeted his praise of the idea during the event. Sunlight has been experimenting with public bill markup for some time, and OpenCongress's website allows people to link to individual clauses in a bill.

"No collaborative bill editing is going to work right away," he wrote, but, "experimenting with public online review to build clout = YES."

A House Oversight and Government Reform Committee staffer tells me that the plan is for this application — as interesting because Issa, a sitting member of Congress and the chair of the Oversight Committee, had a direct hand in creating it as anything else — to live on beyond the SOPA/OPEN debate.

(* Personal Democracy Forum's Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry are senior advisers to the Sunlight Foundation.)

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