A Wiki Proposal.

I love Wikipedia. I have yet to try citing it in anything more formal than a blog comment, but it’s almost always my first stop whenever I’m looking up something new. It’s a one way love affair, though: despite my frequent use of the encyclopedia commons, I’ve never done much to contribute. I actually even have an account, but only use it on the rare occasion I find annoying vandalism on a page that’s off the beaten track, and feel compelled to fix. Like that time some dude apparently felt the need to declare a certain Sumerian king had been, among other things, “the king of dewdy ballz.”

Despite the fact I don’t even contribute to Wikipedia, reading the discussion pages — where editors propose and discuss changes to be made to the encyclopedia’s articles — has long been one of my most effective procrastination strategies. Very rarely is there a page without controversy; it’s like 3,037,332 different soap operas, with a lot of cross-over episodes between articles. There are of course some reliable stand-bys, always good for new drama, such as the never-ending war about Muhammad’s picture, the skirmishes over Conservapedia, and, of course, Scientology. (For my money, though, the most hilarious Discussion debates occur on the economics pages — did you know there’s a nefarious “systematic pro-Keynesian bias throughout WP”?)

But aside from the Internets Drama, I like reading the discussion pages because it feels like watching a small-scale reenactment of international law. When Wikipedia started, it was close to a blank slate in terms of how editor coordination was to be accomplished. Now, not quite a decade later, the repeated interactions of numerous independent editors has lead to the emergence of a body of norms which is widely followed in the Wikipedia community, despite the fact there are only minimal enforcement mechanisms in place. There are dispute resolution processes, customary standards of behavior parties are expected to observe, and means by which parties can generate new rules for the community to follow. The creation of norms is not done by legislative fiat, but rather by the slow accumulation of consensus until a proposed norm obtains the support of and is followed by so many editors that the community as whole begins to act as if they were governed by a rule instead of preference. Sound familiar?

Aside from the organic process by which both systems came to be, there are even a number superficial substantive similarities. Right off the bat, both international law and Wikipedia have a black letter law in common: Presumption of Good Faith.  And both Wikipedia and the United Nations have a policy of “neutrality”… though whether either of them are truly neutral is often held to be suspect, and sometimes for both it’s the very policy of neutrality itself that causes the biggest problems.

Even the conspiracy theories bear certain resemblances. From a Wikipedia article on wiki-governance, “As Wikipedia grows, its governance mechanisms become more complex, and hierarchies of power spring up, both formal (admin, bureaucrat, etc.) and informal (policy wonks, cliques, etc.) Closed decision-making structures, like invite-only IRC channels and mailing lists, are used, creating either the appearance or the reality of one or more cabals controlling Wikipedia processes.” Now let’s try that again: “As international law grows, its governance mechanisms become more complex, and hierarchies of power spring up, both formal (regional organizations, UN subcommittees, etc.) and informal (the community of international law scholars, diplomatic channels between nations, etc.) Closed decision-making structures, like the G-8 and the Security Council, are used, creating either the appearance or the reality of one or more cabals controlling international law processes.”

I know I am already at risk of taking this analogy way too far. But customary international law is, like Wikipedia’s editing policies, an example of emergent behaviors that have developed themselves into a system of rules and sanctions.  Although both systems do have some kind of external enforcement mechanism that can impose rules top-down, it’s the behavioral patterns that developed bottom-up that have always been the prime movers — ultimately, if nations or editors cease to act in a way consistent with a law delivered from a top-down authority, it’s the law that loses. In Wikipedia terms, this means “If a rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it.” In international law, we just call this lex ferenda.

On a similar vein, there’s another parallel here: as both Wikipedia and International Law have become more established, the degree to which top-down structures have taken over the rule-making processes has likewise increased. For instance, Wikipedia no longer allows entirely anonymous editors, and UN bodies now make pronouncements on how states should treat their citizens, even where no CIL had developed.

To make a long story short, this whole post proves, ipso facto, that what international law needs now is the creation  of http://www.WikiCIL.un.org. Henceforth, customary international law will be developed by wiki pages. Nations will create pages when they wish to propose a new customary international law, and also edit existing ones — either to “clarify” the rule’s “true meaning” or, for the bolder editors, to simply declare the old rule to be n00bish and submit a new one to replace it. Sure, there’ll be the occasional flame war and editing duel, but eventually consensus will be reached, and pages will stabilize as nations agree on what the content of customary international law is.

And as a bonus, it’ll also simplify the international dispute resolution process. Is the United States trying to develop a complicated justification for invading Iraq? Just slap a warning on the U.S.’s editor page warning them not to engage in WikiLawyering, i.e., “Misinterpreting policy or relying on technicalities to justify inappropriate actions.”  Is the U.N. lacking in accountability and getting itself involved where it is way over its head? Just give them a friendly pointer over to W:AIC. Is North Korea saying something? Try here.  Problem solved.

-Susan

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