What lawmaking can learn from Wikipedia

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This article is part of our special report ICT: Fuelling the economy.

The European Parliament is readying the publication of its software source code, a move that would open up the details of its lawmaking processes. Meanwhile a number of political activists are undertaking their own initiatives to make not only lawmaking processes, but also content more transparent.

The software in question is AT4AM, standing for Automatic Tool for Amendment. The publication of its source code has been hailed in a blog post by European Parliament advisor on internet policies, Erik Josefsson, as a big step towards the institution’s commitment of “utmost transparency”.

Softwares like AT4AM encode a large part of the lawmaking process into a more readable format. As such Karsten Gerloff, president of Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE), describes it as an “instrument of power”.

Making the code freely available, he says, “means that everyone can have a look at the way Europe’s laws are made.”

But the publication of AT4AM is largely a symbolic gesture. No directives, amendments or other Parliament generated text will be made available as a result.

Finnish MEP Anneli Jääteenmäki (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) doubts that the EU institutions will make this information freely available anytime soon.

“I’m sorry to say that the EU, the Commission, the Council, and the Parliament, are not yet ready for transparency. It is not a technical question. It’s a question of political will,” Jääteenmäki told EURACTIV.

“Now that we have this financial crisis, almost all decisions are taken in secrecy. We cannot get any information about what is done,” she said.


The next step for the Parliament, and other legislatures, would be to publish not only their software source code – which only shows the processes involved in lawmaking – but also the content and the author of texts and amendments, in the style of open-edited encyclopaedia Wikipedia (see background).

While the computing world has known about the possibility of tracking changes with computer software for decades, since Marc Rochkind unveiled his prototype for a “Source Code Control System” in 1972, activists and researchers from a variety of disciplines are only just cottoning on to the implications for more open governance.

One such “hacktivist” is 24-year-old Stefan Wehrmeyer, the founder of Bundes-Git, a project begun with a few other computer programmers on 2 August to track changes in German law with freely distributed software Git.

Wehrmeyer said in an introduction to the project that his ultimate goal was “making the complete German legal history accessible in Git.”

His aim, he says, is to “change the world in some way.”

But efforts like Bundes-Git and Swisslaw – a similar project begun in Switzerland in late March – are small in scale, only publishing amendments made to German law in some areas, leaving others in the dark.

A larger-scale initiative is underway by the Paris Centre for European Studies, at Sciences Po University, which is developing its own open governance internet project, dubbed the “The Law Factory” (“La Fabrique de la Loi”).

The project aims to improve transparency in the activities of the French parliament, by creating an informatics document that makes visible parts of text, phrases, words and even punctuation that have been modified in the parliamentary phase of lawmaking.

The concept note says: “By systematically exploiting large public databases related to parliamentary activities, in fact, these instruments offer a unique resource of visualisation, understanding and analysis of parliamentary debates.”

But even initiatives like the Law Factory rely on what content is made available to the public. They merely rearrange this information into a more user-friendly format.

Still, the implications for lawmaking and transparency in the institutions of power are huge. But as MEP Jääteenmäki says, the only thing missing is political will.

Launched in 2001, the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia makes use of a Revision Control System, but further allows users to view not only the final content of a document, but also who made what changes when – in other words, its entire history.

In the name of transparency, any changes made to articles are immediately visible in a “revision history”, protecting the website from fraudulent content and changes made by those with vested interests.

Therefore anyone can see the authors’ amendments, deletions, even the way they changed the word order and choice of words to affect meaning.

To see how thought evolves over time, Ben Fry, an expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, undertook the monumental task of tracking every change made to all six editions of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

By painstakingly comparing and contrasting close to one million words, Fry was able to reveal, in his own words, “the unfolding and clarification of Darwin’s ideas as he sought to further develop his theory during his lifetime”.

"In the changes are refinements and shifts in ideas - whether increasing the weight of a statement, adding details, or even a change in the idea itself."

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