Congressman Issa Launches Direct Democracy Technology Lab, Seeks Developers

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“We can draft anything, but will we go to the masses?” said Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA), creator of Congress’s little-known online crowdsourcing legislative platform, Project Madison. Today, at the open-government forum, the Personal Democracy Forum, Issa launched a foundation to expand the ability of citizens to suggest changes to all legislation, and to fund more experiments in digital participation. Issa, commonly known as the firebrand conservative critic of President Obama, is also the former chairman of the Consumer Electronics Association, and has used his engineering background to experiment with other digital tools, such as a interactive polling game and livestreams of otherwise secretive committee hearings.

“We intend to focus on problems where technology can strengthen democratic participation, while lowering the real barriers that exist between the citizens and their government,” reads the press release for the OpenGov Foundation.

The initial step will be to expand Madison. Originally launched at a joint Congress-Facebook hackathon to advance his alternative to SOPA, Madison received over 188,000 views. Make no mistake, Project Madison is not hollow pandering (like a previous Republican platform, America Speaking Out): suggestions actually make it into law.

And, boy are the legal suggestions offered on Project Madison wonky. One participant noticed that the wording in Issa’s alternative SOPA law could leave website registrants legally responsible for actions of the website administrator, “The improvement acknowledges that a website owner may not necessarily be the registrant. Steve’s suggestion ensures that notice could be served to either. Thank you, Steve,” states the website (for more suggestions that made it into the proposed law, click here).

The technology isn’t built yet, and Issa will be looking for savvy developers who know how to parse legislative text into a¬†readable¬†format, as well as build out user experience.

Perhaps most importantly, many of Issa’s experiments, including Madison, are aggressively transparent. The identity of every group or person who makes a suggestion is made public. This is, in part, to get around one of the original problems with SOPA, when congress convened a hearing with proponents outnumbering critics 5-1 (with one lonely Googler trying to save the Internet). “Ultimately, the people who don’t want to go on to our site and want to lobby behind the scenes, they will be diminished,” Issa said of Madison. “It increases the power of those who, in a transparent way, are willing to make input.”

Senator Ron Wyden, who joined Issa on stage, warned the audience of a “cyber industrial complex,” which can restrict the universe of knowledge around capitol hill and pass bills that are potentially harmful to a free Internet.

If developers or members of the public are interested in learning more and getting involved, visit opengovfoundation.org