Accessibility links

Breaking News

In Russia, Lawmaking 2.0 Or Sham 2.0?

In the latest issue of "The Economist," there's a story on crowdsourcing the process of drafting and redrafting laws. One of the initiatives featured in the piece is Wikivote in Russia:
The website displays a draft law and lets users propose rewrites of each paragraph; others can vote on the suggestions. In another section they can debate “thorny questions”. A reputation-rating system gives serious users’ votes more weight; invited experts get even more. The site’s first full-scale test came earlier this year, when protests erupted over a new fisheries bill that proposed charging Russians for their beloved pastime of fishing in public waterways. At the government’s behest, Wikivote posted the draft bill; it went through two redrafts with over 1,000 proposed modifications, according to Vasiliy Burov, one of the project’s creators. On the site now is a longer and trickier education bill.

This isn't the first time the Kremlin had done this. Last year, they solicited input on the draft of a police law, which received 20,000 responses. Such online particpation is what Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has called "direct democracy," that supposedly pure successor to the tainted -- read Western -- "representative democracy."
This theme is touched on in a Wikivote PowerPoint presentation, which argues that the "technological capabilities of the Internet provide the basis for the transition from the contemporary society of representative democracy to the Internet society of direct democracy." The presentation makes a good deal of sense, with talk of creating a platform for discussion, bringing in interest groups, the creation of an elite of public experts who are motivated by career advancement and being recongised for their expertise.

Writing about the police law last year, it smelt to me a little bit too much like Potemkin democracy, participation without true representation, or to use Rebecca MacKinnon's phrase, "networked authoritarianism." Crowdsourcing drafting laws is also a useful means of sentiment analysis, a high priority for the Kremlin's "political technologists."
"The Economist" piece points out some other shortcomings of crowdsourcing legislation: time, money, lack of expertise, lack of popular interest, clunky interface design. Such projects also have to break into law-making systems that function "tolerably well."

Looking at this intiative in Russia, it does seem more like a genuine attempt to innovate and improve a law. A total of 5,359 people took part in the online editing process and 67 provisions were amended. The sponsors of the bill hope it will be passed by the Duma in December. The proof of the pudding will be to see how much the citizens' inputs were incorporated and how the wiki law compares with the final bill approved by the Duma.
There is good reason for skepticism, though. On October 19, Russia's ruling party, United Russia, launched a website where people can complain and report election violations. However, as this piece in points out, it isn't apparent, when using the site, exactly how to make the complaints. On the surface the website is a progressive tool, steeped in participatory democracy and the tenets of the OpenGov movement, but in reality, just another means of legitimizing the ruling party. These are essentially online equivalents of government-organized NGOs (GONGOS), shills for civil-soceity organizations working in the interests of governments.

Even if the participatory aspect of the initiative was pure, it is soiled by Russia's parliamentary context: due to tight media control and the misuse of state resources the electorol playing field is skewed, resulting in a Duma packed with United Russia deputies and a meek and hamstrung opposition. In that regard, online intiatives such as Wikivote are likely to remain little more than sideshows.