Constitutional Coding

Screenshot of Google's new project "Constitute"

Screenshot of Google's new project "Constitute"

 Last week, Google launched what might be its most ambitious and far-reaching service in years. The tech giant whose servers and engineers help us navigate the internet (Google Search), manage email (Gmail), engage in social media (Google +), and whose mobile operating system (Android) powers most of the world's smartphones has decided to tackle, of all things, constitution writing. This new initiative, called simply “Constitute”, seeks to “arm drafters with a better tool for constitution design and writing”, according to a post on Google's official blog.

Constitution-making is often a closed, secretive exercise. It is the antithesis of the contemporary global “internet culture” that is based on open standards, general access, and collaboration. Google believes that by casting light on this process and sharing its findings with everyone, anywhere, newly-formed governments can draft better constitutions, and those citizens living under an existing constitutional regime can become better informed about the system that governs them.

Writing a constitution is a monumental endeavor, and any missteps along the way can have disastrous results. Egypt and Syria are but two recent examples of how quickly this process can go wrong: both have two of the world's newest constitutions (December and February of 2012, respectively), and both have suffered from tremendous political unrest and instability in the last two years.

“Constitutionalism” is a process, not an outcome; it represents the accumulation of political, social, and cultural experiences codified into a legal document. For centuries, however, the belief has been that these experiences must be local — that is, a product of the state or nation for which the constitution is being drafted. Constitution-writers, say, in Egypt could look to other successful constitutions (and what qualifies as “success” is subject to active debate) for ideas on how to word specific clauses, but the understanding is that the core of the text is purely “Egyptian”. The last thing Egyptian constitutionalists would want is a document that is Western-influenced or in any way an inorganic product of the Egyptian experience — or so many constitutional scholars would have us believe.

Enter Google. What “Constitute” represents is the open-sourcing of constitutionalism. No longer would politicians, lawyers, jurists, and laypersons convene to draft a constitution in isolation, shut-out from the rich traditions and experiences of the world's other constitutional regimes. Using Constitute, Egyptians, Syrians, or any other group looking to write a new constitution would have access to every constitutional provision in existence on the topic of journalistic freedom, rights of religious minorities, or degree of judicial review power, to name but three. By extension, the public can also become part of the constitution-making process: requiring no more than access to an internet browser (and assuming said access is not restricted or otherwise censored — a big assumption, I admit), anyone can cross-reference a proposed amendment against what is already out there in other states. Does your government claim that its new constitution is the most progressive when it comes to the rights of women in marital disputes? Look it up and see how it compares to what the French enjoy, or the Chinese, or Bolivians. If you don't like what you see, you can call them out on it.

Google's endeavor takes us one step closer towards collaborative constitutionalism, a process of constitution-making based on a shared, open “code” that anyone can contribute to, borrow from, and use. The technology that powers the global information exchange is not proprietary, and everyone has benefited as a result. It is time that constitutionalism moved in the same direction.