We're still working through the documentation and FAQs for this site and will release them here and on the blog as they are updated. In the meantime, you can help out by asking any questions we're missing and we will add them in.
The site is intended to reflect the existing state of the debate and provide a resource to active participants on either side of the question. However, it can be said that given the current state of the treaty in the political process, only proponents of ratification would be pushing for debate or discussion. My personal view is strongly in favor of UNCLOS ratification, in line with the overwhelming consensus from the political, military, and commercial leadership. I do not want to dismiss the valid concerns of treaty opponents and will make every effort to reflect their arguments here accurately but I believe that on balance, the gains to the U.S. economically, strategically, and politically from ratification outweigh these concerns.
Q: Who is behind this project? Who provides your funding?
Currently the project is independently financed, developed, and directed by myself, Greg Schnippel. I may seek further funding to help expand this project to other topics and to extend the platform but the goal is to remain neutral and unaffiliated on the topics covered to give the best possible coverage for each debate. I also tend to speak in the plural (a modified Royal "we") to reflect the collabrative and open source nature of the platform and topic development but will announce any new official team members as we grow.
I have have been developing websites and collabrative software for the past fifteen years and have developed several successful and award-winning web-based advocacy campaigns, primarily using the Drupal platform on which this site is built. I have also been researching and writing on technology and international security issues for the past 10 years and graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) with an MA in International Relations and a concentration in Strategic Studies. Finally, I was involved in competitive debate for many years, at the high-school and collegiate level as both a competitor and coach, where I first encountered many of the topics I'm covering now.
Q: What is UNCLOSDebate.org?
UNCLOSDebate is an effort to expand the debate on the U.S. ratification of the United Nations convention on the Law of the Sea through a collaborative wiki-like tool for structured debate on a topic. The project is modeled after Wikipedia, but instead of focusing on developing an encyclopedia it invites users to help edit and expand an 'argument tree' that reflects the various positions in the debate over UNCLOS ratification. Users can browse the argument tree or an extensive database of resources, including links to relevant news articles, authoritative quotes, and a comprehensive bibliography of sources. The project is part of a larger effort, nicknamed the "Open Debate Engine", which hopes to create a hybrid wiki platform that will be conducive to handling larger policy debate topics. There are three complementary goals for this project:
To provide a resource for students and practitioners on the issues involved in the debate over UNCLOS ratification;
To expand and further the public debate over the ratification of UNCLOS;
To develop an open-source system for the collabrative development and editing of an argument tree that can be re-used on other questions.
Q: What software is the site built on?
The site is built using a custom distribution of Drupal 7.x that I'm calling the Open Debate Engine. Essentially, its a stack of features, custom modules, and themes that will allow administrators to run a similar debate on the topic of their choice out of the box. I haven't open sourced this yet but I intend to in the roadmap after I've finalized the initial phase one tasks and then rolled this out for the other three sites in the initial phase.
I'm also making liberal usage of the fontawesome library, using the Google font Lato, and have taken all images from Wikipedia unless otherwise indicated.
Q: What is a container argument?
A "container" argument is for top-level arguments that contain numerous supporting arguments that define the warrant, making a longer description unnecessary -- essentially the supporting arguments are doing most of the work. When this is checked, the system will output a simple list of the supporting arguments in addition to whatever is in the body field.
Arguments are the core of the system. Each argument has a succinct explanation of its claim and warrant which you can edit and improve on. All arguments are related to each other through four different kinds of relationships:
Supporting: An argument used to support the claim of the current argument (below it in the argument tree);
Counter: An argument in direct opposition to the claim of the current argument;
Parent: An argument that lists the current argument as a supporting argument (above it in the argument tree);
Related: An argument that is related thematically to the current one;
Q: Why the structured format? What is wrong with the existing methods for online debate?
There are many other tools out there to facilitate dialogue and community (for example, mailing lists, discussion boards, blogs, etc.) and this tool isn't meant to replace them. The goal is for this site to serve as a reference tool for these more active discussions in the same way users might currently use Wikipedia. However, there are three limitations in current online discussion that this system tries to address:
Lack of Structure: Existing tools allow valuable exchanges and debates to occur but do not facilitate structure that is necessary for resolution and learning. For example, in the debate over global warming, the subject is far too broad to be discussed usefully as a a whole. It has to first be broken into subarguments:
Warming is/not occuring;
Warming is/not human caused;
Warming is/not a cause for concern;
The U.S. should adopt a policy to reduce global warming. … etc.
And then again:
Warming is/not a cause for concern;
Warming (increases/has no effect on) hurricanes;
Warming (increases/has no effect on) biodiversity;
Warming (increases/has no effect on) spread of disease.. etc.
For the most part, online debate over broad and contentious issues such as global warming occurs at these sub levels and can be very useful.
Persistence: Related to the problem of structure is the problem of persistance. Even if a user could locate the relevant debate over a specific subargument on a discussion forum or discussion list archive, she can not be certain that the debate is still relevant. With online discussion forums, debate over sub-points occur in spurts and usually devolve into a clash between a few personalities that discourages others from getting involved (ex. Godwin's Law). The structured format of the Open Debate Engine can help resolve this by providing a permanent home for each argument and its subargument.
Balkanization: A third problem with current online discussion is the tendency for users to gather and argue only with users who already share their viewpoint (also known as homophily). For example, the political blogosphere is divided into right vs. left, wingbat vs. moonnut, factions. The open debate engine system will attempt to counteract this tendency by showing the counterargument for each argument, forcing the various factions to confront each others' positions.
Q: Why not just use wiki software like Wikimedia?
Wiki projects like Wikipedia were obviously an inspiration for this project and I use wikis for several of my sites including the documentation section on this one. I tried to implement the site using wiki software but there were several limitations of wiki software that motivated me to try and come up with something new.
First, it was too cumbersome to try and develop the structure and linkage I wanted to with wiki software. Using an object-oriented application framework mades it a lot easier to sort and relate arguments-to-arguments, arguments-to-quotations, etc. and create quick views that let me output these relations.
Second, I wanted to maintain some level of moderator control over the structure of the argument tree. I feared that the edit and revert wars that occur on the more contentious Wikipedia pages would be catastrophic on this site.
Finally, wiki software lacked the RSS syndication capabilities that I felt were necessary to make the site more useful.
Q: Is there a preferred way to refer to the treaty?
In its 40 years of existence, the treaty has been referred to with several acronyms and titles. The official full name is "United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea" which is formally shortened to UNCLOS. In the literature, it is often referred to as the "Law of the Sea treaty" or "Law of the Sea convention", or "UNCLOS III" to reflect that the treaty emerged from the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea in 1982. Some opponents of UNCLOS use the acronym "LOST" as a pejorative to further malign the treaty. Where possible, all quotations will retain the original author's designation but all contextual text should refer to it by its formal name or acronym (UNCLOS) for consistency.