Rewriting the Constitution on Facebook

The Icelandic Constitutional Assembly relied on social media in drafting a new constitution

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

The 2008 financial crisis hit nowhere else nearly as hard as it did Iceland. But Icelanders, despite having one of the oldest histories of republican government in the world, and a language that has hardly changed since the eighth century—imagine if English were spoken as it is in Beowulf—the Icelanders are a modern and resilient people.

So when the banking system collapsed and brought the government down with it, Iceland took a hard look at the institutions responsible. One of the problems to reveal itself was an outdated, and still-provisional, constitution from 1944, when it became independent of Denmark.

In the United States, the method for a wholesale rewrite of the Constitution is written into the Constitution itself, and, as you would expect from a 225-year-old document, it basically calls for people to drive their horse-drawn carriages to a central meeting. Iceland was free to adopt more contemporary methods. Still, it was a little bit of a shock when an initial draft was thoroughly vetted by thousands and thousands of citizens on social media. A new version was then composed by a 25-person constitutional assembly.

The resulting document was ratified by a nonbinding plebiscite last month. It only remains for the will of the people to be enacted by the Icelandic parliament.

My guest today is Thorvaldur Gylfason. He’s a professor of economics at the University of Iceland and was one of the 25 to serve in the constitutional assembly. He joins us by phone.

Thor, welcome to the podcast.

Thorvaldur Gylfason: Thank you very much.

Steven Cherry: Let’s take it step by step, and maybe we should start with what’s sometimes been called the “Kitchenware Revolution.” What was it, and where does that name come from?

Thorvaldur Gylfason: The name comes from the people banging their pots and pans in protest against the great crash of late 2008, so people took to the streets. They gathered in Parliament Square in Reykjavik. The noise they made was audible into the chambers of parliament, and the parliamentarians were forced to listen. And the people demanded a number of things. They demanded, among other things, a new constitution. You know, in addition to the government being replaced, and things like that. And actually, the politicians, they gave in. The government resigned. It called a new parliament election that was held in February of 2009, and the new parliament that was then elected set in motion a process for rewriting the constitution of Iceland.

Steven Cherry: Now, so a constitutional assembly was formed, and so how were you and the other members chosen?

Thorvaldur Gylfason: What happened was that the parliament decided three things: First, it decided to convene a national assembly, comprising 950 people, drawn at random, by computer that is, from the national registry. And the idea was that every Icelander 18 years [of age] and over had an equal chance of being elected to the national assembly. And this national assembly then convened for a day and then issued its conclusions at the end of the day. And the conclusions were basically two: First, they said that Iceland does need a new constitution, as had been demanded by the pots and pans revolution. And number two, they wanted the following things, A, B, C, D, to be in the new constitution.

And then what the government did was to convene a committee of seven professional people—lawyers and others—to do preparatory work, to analyze the existing constitution, make sort of suggestions as to the formulation of new provisions for a new constitution, and so on. And then the third thing was to convene a constituent assembly. And that was supposed to be elected democratically. There were 522 candidates who threw in their names, and they elected 25 of them, and they formed the constituent assembly then.

In October, last month, parliament asked the people what they thought of this. They presented basically six questions to the electorate. The first question was, Do you want the bill that was prepared by constituent assembly to be the basis of the next constitution? And 67 percent said yes, and only 33 percent said no. And then there was five auxiliary questions, each about sort of one of the main individual provisions of the bill, like, Do you want the new constitution to have a provision stipulating one person, one vote? And again there was an overwhelming yes. Another question was, Do you want the new constitution to declare the country’s natural resources to be the perpetual property of the nation? And again, the answer was an overwhelming yes.

So now the government is going over the bill once more. They’ve asked a group of lawyers to make sure that from a legal, technical point of view, the language was watertight and things like that, and over the next few days, the parliament will present, in its chambers, the final version of the bill that will include only minor adjustments to the bill that the constituent assembly approved, and that will then be debated in the parliament. Let me add one more thing. You see, there are strong opponents to the bill, which is understandable. There are people who don’t like one person, one vote, because that will make it impossible for them to be elected. They also don’t want natural resources to be declared the perpetual property of the nation, because they have hitherto been granted special access to these resources. And these people sort of form a strong opposition to the bill. But they are in the minority, as the referendum last October shows very clearly.

Steven Cherry: So the 25 of you wrote a first draft and then put it on Facebook, is that right?

Thorvaldur Gylfason: Well, we put it on our interactive website. Basically, in the first few days of operations, we decided to put the first few clauses that we were drafting on the website, for everyone to be able to go over them and react to them. We were a bit reluctant about this in the beginning, because, you know, political blog sites are not very sophisticated in Iceland, as I’m sure they’re not very sophisticated in some other countries as well. But we decided to take the chance, and we were pleasantly surprised by what happened. What we got was basically quite sophisticated and polite reactions from people who either said, “You know, we like what you’re doing. We see nothing wrong,” or said, “You know, maybe you want to consider this or that,” and so on. And we got in the end more than 300 sort of formal letters with concrete, specific suggestions for changes or for ideas that we should insert into the document. And we got, you know, thousands of sort of questions and comments on our interactive website—comments and suggestions that we responded to, basically without exception.

We did, of course, invite all kinds of advisors, lawyers, and others to come and read specific parts of what we were doing, or write memos for us, or come and see us at meetings. But then, of course, we could not approach every potential eligible expert, so we issued a sort of open invitation to everyone, expert or not, that they were free to come forward with their suggestions, and many did, but many didn’t. For example, it was quite interesting that the special-interest groups, you know, like boat owners or bankers or farmers, they did not step forward, because they are so used to being sort of welcomed into smoke-filled rooms of parliament, where they can basically draft legislation as they want to have it. So they were possibly quite offended by being invited to take a seat at the same table with everyone else, you see. So they did not come forward.

Steven Cherry: And it seems they weren’t the only group not very enthusiastic about using social media. I gather parliament itself wasn’t, and quite a few academics. You’re an academic, but I gather a lot of academics were skeptical. And the media itself was critical of the idea, wasn’t it?

Thorvaldur Gylfason: Well, not as much critical, I would say, as sort of unenthusiastic and unimpressed. I think, on the other hand, that this must be viewed as another huge success. But at the same time, one should not exaggerate the extent to which the help that was offered via the social media had a decisive influence. It was helpful. It sort of opened up the whole process, and it contributed to a better document, but perhaps not in a very important way.

Steven Cherry: Now, I wonder, though, if besides those certain improvements that were made, I wonder if the results of the nonbinding vote, the 2-to-1 vote in favor of the constitution, I wonder if that was such a wide margin because the ideas had been socialized on social media, and people felt invested in it.

Thorvaldur Gylfason: Yes, there I think you are exactly right. I think it is quite possible that a strong following has something to do with people appreciating the participatory spirit of the exercise. No, I agree with you. If we had done this behind closed doors, as it was done in Philadelphia [in 1787], turnout might have been lower, and the enthusiasm behind the yes vote might have been less. I agree.

Steven Cherry: And can you give us an example of one of those ideas that emerged from the interactive website that might not have occurred to the 25 of you?

Thorvaldur Gylfason: Yes. My favorite example is one, actually, that in the end we did not use. We got a very sophisticated letter, long letter, from a senior police officer, an Icelander who works now for Europort in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, I believe. And he pointed out that Icelandic law is behind legislation in neighboring countries concerning the confiscation of stolen property. And he said correctly that one role of constitutions is to sort of put in the constitution things that the parliament have failed to put into ordinary legislation. So he provided very sophisticated text that he thought might fit into the document. And we debated this in detail, but in the end we decided that a special provision on the confiscation of stolen property would be sort of out of place, would be sort of not in the spirit of the document. But the point was very well taken.

To give another example, we got letters from farmers who emphasized the environmental damage that is caused by cross-fence grazing—if you allow your sheep to graze on somebody else’s property. And that sort of helped us strengthen the text concerning grazing in the provision on environmental protection. And there are several other sort of small things like this, where we were encouraged by the comments and suggestions we received by ordinary people.

Steven Cherry: Iceland is a pretty homogenous country in terms of ethnicity, education, even incomes are not as stratified as in most Western countries. Do you think a process like this would work in a more heterogeneous nation?

Thorvaldur Gylfason: I don’t see why it wouldn’t work in a more heterogeneous nation, but if you ask me would it work in a much larger nation, like the United States, that is where I come up short. But let me say this: One of the reasons why doing this via social media was such an obvious thing to do here was that we have one of the highest rates of Internet connection in the world. Here, 95 percent of the Icelandic population has an Internet connection. Now, for example, Turkey is considering a new constitution. They have less than 40 percent Internet connectivity, so there would be more of an argument to be made on behalf of the 60 percent that have no Internet connection, that they would not sit at the same table as everyone else if the social media were used in a significant manner in Turkey. But then, you know, I would understand also those who said, “Well, you know, it is good to give some extra influence to that part of the Turkish population that has an Internet connection and thereby sort of more modern than the rest.” So I think one can debate the pros and cons of both positions in Turkey.

Steven Cherry: I was thinking also about the size of Iceland. It’s really quite small. Physically it’s a bit smaller than Kentucky or Cuba. It’s got fewer people than Wichita, Kansas. But I do take your point also that Iceland has got that high rate of Internet connectivity. In fact, Iceland seems a bit mad for social media. Apparently the latest thing is a nationwide discussion about maybe changing the 1000-year-old name of the country.

Thorvaldur Gylfason: That was not a serious proposal. It would just be laughed out of the room right away.

Steven Cherry: Good, because it’s…it would be very confusing, I think, for the world. We in the United States have quite a reverence for the men, and sadly it was all men at the time who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Constitution. The American founding documents are regarded as sacred in some ways. Do you think that 100 or 200 years from now, Icelanders will have a similar regard for this document, and the men and women who created it?

Thorvaldur Gylfason: No, I don’t think so. The average age of constitutions, the average life expectancy of constitutions is 19 years. So the American Constitution, you know, has had an unusually long life. And there is a research team at the University of Chicago, led by professor Tom Ginsburg, who analyzed the constitutional bill now before parliament, and based on sort of comparisons across hundreds of constitutions, you know, old and new ones across the world, they think that the Icelandic draft that we now have has a life expectancy of 60 years. In other words, they think the language is sufficiently solid for this document to be able to live three times the average life expectancy of 19 years. And in a fascinating historical letter that was written by Thomas Jefferson to James Madison just after the U.S. Constitution was ratified, Madison said that he expected the U.S. Constitution to be replaced in about 19 years. It’s quite striking.

Steven Cherry: That is very striking. Well, I hope history comes to regard you at least fondly, if not reverently, and I’m sure everyone in Iceland thanks you for your service. And I thank you for joining us today.

Thorvaldur Gylfason: Oh, thank you very much. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Thorvaldur Gylfason about the role played by social media in the drafting of the new Icelandic constitution.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

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This interview was recorded 13 November 2012.
Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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