The World

[as I find it]

Two organizations that are empowering people

Today, I came across two different organizations that are doing things to empower individual citizens, in the face of different kinds of controlling interests. I don’t know much about either yet, but I am intrigued enough to urge you to check them out yourself. The two organizations are unrelated except for the fact that both are dedicating themselves to “fighting back,” in one way or another, against larger entities that have the resources to navigate and manipulate the American legal system. I suppose this tells you something about my browsing habits, if nothing else.

The first organization is the Free Software Foundation, which according to this Slashdot story has established an “Expert Witness Defense Fund” to pay for witnesses in legal proceedings brought by the RIAA against individual citizens. The RIAA’s abuses of the legal system are well documented, and highlight the need for copyright law reform. (I read about one particularly-heartbreaking case in Lawrence Lessig’s book Free Culture, in which a student was sued for modifying an existing search utility that made it easier to search publicly-accessible network directories. He didn’t post any infringing content himself, but he was forced to give up his entire savings for college to make the lawsuit go away. Read the chapter here.)

I don’t know what the effect of this fund will be, or if it will go any distance toward correcting the heart of the problem. In my view, by the time a case brought by the RIAA against an individual citizen gets to court, the damage has already been done: the defendant has already likely accrued substantial legal fees, and the defendant’s family, friends, and peers have all been negatively impacted by the suit. No matter the outcome of the case (which will probably be settled), the RIAA succeeds in frightening anyone who hears about it into giving up their rights. The message is clear: “Don’t do anything we might not like, or you’ll have to pay us as much money as you’ve got, even if you didn’t do anything illegal.” If having a fund for expert witnesses brings the issue more public attention and helps curb this abusive litigation, I am all for it; but I wonder if more effort is needed to reform the law which causes these cases in the first place.

The second organization is the Democracy Foundation, which has proposed a law called the National Initiative for Democracy. The initiative has two parts:

  1. an amendment to the United States Constitution protecting citizens’ rights to enact and repeal laws; and
  2. an act that establishes the procedures according to which the people will act as a legislative body

The basic idea behind the initiative is simple: in a democracy, the government is sanctioned by and exists to serve the people it governs; governmental power stems from the ability to legislate; hence, the people, as the original source of governmental power, have the right to legislate. In effect, the initiative creates at the national level a “fourth branch” of government in which private citizens propose, sponsor and enact laws directly. It does not replace the current government; it adds a check on it. The thinking is that our current system of representation is easily abused by legislators and by groups with their own private agendas, and that there is currently no established path for recourse or reform of this system. By enabling citizens to pass legislation directly, the public can overturn the laws created by representatives when those laws are not in the public’s interest, and can enact new laws that their representatives are failing to pass.

There are a couple of interesting things about this initiative. First, there’s the fact that it isn’t being enacted through any existing legislative body; it will be voted on directly by any citizen who cares to vote, and it is self-legitimizing (i.e., the text of the Amendment explicitly says in section 2 that “the citizens of the United States hereby sanction the national election … permitting the enactment of this Article and the Democracy Act”). It would obviously be backward for the initiative to become law in some other way — the public doesn’t need its elected representatives to sanction its legislative power, since the public delegates that power to representatives to begin with — but it’s certainly a mode of legislation that will seem strange to modern Americans.

Second, the initiative prohibits any “incorporated entity,” including industry groups, labor unions, political parties, political action committees, organized religions and associations, from contributing funds, services or property in support of or against any legislation sanctioned by the amendment. This is a clear reaction to the feeling that our current representative system is too easily abused by organizations that have substantially more resources to promote their interests above those of citizens. It’s a strong measure, and strongly worded, which makes the initiative all the more important (and difficult) to pass. I think this clause provides some much-needed reform, but I wonder what the price will be. Interest groups are always likely to find some way to assert their interests (that’s why they exist, after all) and I wonder if this language, if the amendment becomes law, will drive this behavior even further from public oversight than it is now.

In any event, it’s quite refreshing to me to see that someone is worrying about these problems and taking steps to solve them. Other thoughts?


Written by whereofwecannotspeak

November 20, 2007 at 1:36 am

Posted in Free Software, Ideas

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