The Internet in the Service of Constitutionalism: Project CoCoNet

Dagmar Weisova <>
Arco Consulting

Tibor Weis <>
Technical University, Zvolen


The contribution "Internet in Service of Constitutionalism: Project CoCoNet" concerns our experience with linking the constitutional courts in Eastern and Central Europe on the Internet and shows the possibility of long-distance management and international cooperation through the Internet. We focus on both the technical and organizational aspects of the project.

Keywords: constitutional court, Central and Eastern Europe, Internet links, international cooperation, international project.



Constitutional courts in the postcommunist countries of Central and Eastern Europe have been either newly established or rebuilt on new democratic principles. The process of creating the system of constitutional review is not easy. Each country goes about this in its own way, but courts in separate countries face similar problems. While the courts in the region have computers, local networks, databases, and libraries, the constitutional justices and counselors have been missing the information they could use to do comparative work easily and quickly. The most desired information comes from four sources of legal materials:

  1. The decisions of other judicial institutions with the function of constitutional review (the term for these institutions varies by country--constitutional court, supreme court, national court, constitutional council, etc.).
  2. The decisions of international legal institutions, such as the European Commission for Human Rights, the European Court for Human Rights, and the European Court of Justice.
  3. Constitutions and laws.
  4. Legal books, journals, and articles from around the World.

Formerly, it was not easy to find this kind of information in the region. The only way to obtain such legal material was to contact judicial institutions formally through the old-fashioned snail-mail or fax, then wait; and the result was not always the one expected. One of the reasons for this was the lack of legal materials translated into other languages. Thus, communication among the courts was quite limited.

On the other hand, there is public interest in constitutional issues among lawyers and teachers who specialize in constitutional law, law students doing their Ph.D. research in this area, journalists writing about political cases, and ordinary citizens interested in the role of a constitutional court or the pictures and biographies of constitutional justices.

The question of a "universal constitutional database" has been discussed for several years, e.g., at the Council of Europe. But, probably the big emphasis of constitutional law experts on the legal thesaurus took a long time and the real implementation has not been finished. On the Internet are many examples of successful solutions for communication in academic and scientific communities where collaborative work and noncensured information exchange is absolutely necessary. Because of the big success of the Internet as a global information superhighway, its infrastructure and principles are also accepted by governments of many countries, and state organs have become interested in using it.

Although the Internet cannot be an "instant" solution of all problems connected with democracy building in postcommunist countries, it can help to spread the ideas of democracy and rules of law.

The project ideas

The idea for the project had originated at the Center for Study of Constitutionalism in Eastern Europe (CSCEE) at the Chicago University Law School [1] several years ago and was waiting for the right time and opportunity to be realized.

In September 1994, the international legal conference "Constitutional Courts in Central and Eastern European Countries in the Period of Transformation" was held in Warsaw, Poland. Because a conference is a place where people with common interest meet, this conference gave an opportunity for Prof. Larry Lessig from CSCEE and Dagmar Makariusova (now Weisova) to meet and discuss the idea of mutual information exchange among the courts via Internet. At that time, Dagmar worked at the Law Information and Computer Center at the Constitutional Court of the Slovak Republic, which was the first constitutional court in postcommunist countries connected to the Internet (by Unix-to-Unix Copy [UUCP] only since 1994).

After the conference, their discussion continued by e-mail. Ten days later, Larry mentioned the project in his e-mail for the first time, with the challenge: "The Chicago Center is interested in getting other constitutional courts onto the Internet." Then they agreed to cooperate in the project of linking constitutional courts in Central and Eastern Europe to the Internet with the aim of improving legal information exchange among courts through e-mail and having court decisions published on the World Wide Web (WWW).

A lot of technical questions were still unanswered. It was clear that without the technical help of a person familiar with the Internet situation in Central and Eastern Europe the project would fail. The third person to join the project team was Tibor Weis from the Computer Center of the Technical University in Zvolen, where he had been managing the node of the Slovak Academic Network (SANET).

The members of the project team have had the following roles:

Internet connectivity in the postcommunist countries varied. Some countries were not connected to the Internet at all. Therefore, it was impossible to connect all constitutional courts in Central and Eastern Europe to the Internet at the same time. We agreed to split the project into several stages and start a pilot project called CoCoNet as the first stage.

In this first stage, four courts were selected: (1) the Constitutional Court of Hungary, in Budapest; (2) the Constitutional Court of the Slovak Republic, in Kosice; (3) the Constitutional Court of the Czech Republic, in Brno; and (4) the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, in Moscow. These countries had already developed internal Internet infrastructure with international connectivity, so there was reasonable hope for success. The closeness in distance and language was considered an advantage.

CoCoNet  map
Figure 1

Project phases

Project CoCoNet went through several phases.

Phase I: gathering information

In November 1994, we began exploring the situation for Internet connection in the four cities that are the seats of the selected courts, and we prepared the preliminary budget. The budget consisted of three main items:

  1. equipment (routers, modems, servers)
  2. telecommunication and Internet access fees for one year
  3. ongoing support and travel expenses

To obtain information about the Internet situation and potential ISPs in the region, we first conducted searches on the Internet (e.g, WWW, Whois, RIPE database). Tibor continued gathering information through e-mail and through discussions at various European Internet meetings, mainly from his colleagues from Central and Eastern European Network Association (CEENet).

Phase II: presentation

On the basis of previous personal contacts with several constitutional justices in the region, the Chicago Center established contact with the four courts and arranged presentations.

In the summer of 1995, we visited the courts with the aim of presenting the project, explaining its ideas, and showing the benefits of Internet connectivity. We used this opportunity to survey local technical situations and to discuss the equipment necessary for a court to be connected to the Internet.


We visited the Hungarian court twice. In August 1995, we met with people from the court computer center and Hungarnet (ISP in Budapest) and talked about technical aspects of Internet connection for the Hungarian court. In October 1995, we presented the project to the constitutional justices and people from the court computer center.


We visited the Russian court once, in September 1995. We presented the project to the constitutional justices and people from the court computer center. This was the only presentation in which the Chicago Center (Larry) participated and was probably the most difficult one. The presentation was in Russian and the discussion in English.

During the discussion, Russian constitutional justices asked several interesting questions, e.g., "Who is the owner of the Internet?", "Why is the United States interested in the Russian court being connected to the Internet?", "How will data security be provided?", "Why should court information be public?" We think we gave them the right answers, because the Russian court accepted the offer to participate in the project.

Next, we spent our time in Moscow, meeting with four ISPs and one telecommunications company, which secure digital trunks between customers and ISPs.

Czech Republic

The presentation at the Czech court was done by Tibor in October 1995, and he talked with people from the court computer center. Since the Czech language and the Slovak languages are very similar, discussion went without any obstacles.

Slovak Republic

A presentation at the Slovak court was not necessary because Dagmar worked there in the Law Information and Computer Center. From 1994 to 1996, the Slovak court had e-mail access only via UUCP, and court Web pages were stored at the Technical University in Zvolen.


In all presentations, we explained the idea of the project and showed the Web page of the Slovak Constitutional Court and other legal sources already existing on the Internet. The presentation was in the off-line mode, and all HTML pages were shown on our notebook computer. Next, we explained the way the Center wanted to initiate the process of using the Internet at every court--that the Chicago Center will loan the necessary equipment to a court and pay the Internet connection for one year. And finally, we explained the only thing a court would be asked to do--publish its decisions on the Internet.

A constitutional court is an independent state authority, according to the state's constitution. But in reality, it does depend on a state budget. Internet connection seemed to be an unexpected and not a small expense for a court. Hence, people at each court appreciated the help to initiate the court-Internet link offered by the Chicago Center. But what is more important, they liked the idea of access to the huge amount of legal materials on the Internet, the principle of quick and user-friendly access, and the freshness of Internet information--and these features convinced them to participate in the project. By November 1995, all four courts agreed to participate in the project by written agreement sent to the Chicago Center.

Phase III: installation

Using the information gathered from the courts and ISPs, we specified the necessary equipment and corrected the preliminary budget. We chose specific groups of equipment but in general the equipment was as follows:

A Unix server provides a court with all main Internet services (e.g., DNS, WWW, SMTP, and POP e-mail) and secures proxying and caching for retrieved HTML documents.

A Cisco router 2514 was equipped with two serial and two ethernet ports. Ethernet ports were used for splitting local networks into two parts (as shown in figure 2) and for providing firewall between public and private segments of a court local network. One serial port was used for Internet connectivity, which was provided by a leased line at a rate of 64 kbps. At the time we set up the budget, there was no possibility of ordering a digital line in Slovakia. We could only obtain an analog line from the Slovak Telecom company. Therefore, we had to use Nokia baseband modems.


Security was the most-discussed question during our presentations. We solved the issue of security in the following way. All servers with public information were placed on a public ethernet segment. We set up an access list on the router between the ethernet and serial ports. Private clients were allowed access to the public segment but not to the Internet. Access from the Internet was permitted on the public segment only. Clients could reach their mailboxes via POP mail. Access to other Web servers on the Internet was accelerated by a proxy server which had cached the most-retrieved pages on its disk. This was very important because Internet connection in postcommunist countries is usually quite slow.

Connection model
Figure 2

Obstacles during the project implementation

There were at least four areas that might have had problems during the project implementation. These are the four requirements for publishing on the WWW anywhere:

  1. Internet connection (hardware, telecom, ISP)
  2. content of Web pages
  3. people and software (for information publishing)
  4. legal and policy issues (such as freedom of information and elimination of copyright in public information)

Because Slovak Telecom has a monopoly, we had to wait two months for a leased line to be installed and then two more weeks for the line to be improved to the desired quality (64 kbps and no errors online). The situation was similar in Hungary.

As we have already said, the courts were asked to publish all court decisions on the WWW. A problem appeared with the Slovak court. Annually, the Slovak court publishes "The Collection of Decisions of the Constitutional Court of the Slovak Republic" without the names of the parties of involved in the cases. These collections are also published on the WWW without any problem. But the database of all Slovak court decisions cannot be published on the WWW because it contains the name of parties. To overcome this problem, the Slovak court proposed to provide decisions on the WWW with initials instead of the full names of the parties.

The project has been very interesting for the courts, but it has also meant an additional workload for the court computer centers, which usually consists of only a few people (two persons at the Czech court, one person at the Slovak court). Moreover, people at some court computer centers had very little experience with Unix, so implementation of a WWW server based on BSDi Unix was more difficult those places. This problem was solved by Tibor, who gave the computer centers technical help by e-mail and provided long-distance configuration of the system when it was necessary.

We were fortunate to have no problems with the freedom of information in the four countries that participated in the project.

The usage of the Internet at courts

Prior to the project, all four courts (mainly their computer centers) had some experience with e-mail communication, browsing the WWW, and using basic Internet services. After the installation it was necessary to train them in running a WWW server and in basic router configuration.

Now that the courts are connected to the Internet, the next phase of the project starts. It is the work that has to be done by people at the computer center at each court--publishing court decisions and other court information on the WWW and training constitutional justices, their counselors, and assistants in using the Internet.

Legal information flow through the Internet
Figure 3

After analyzing the flow of legal information through the Internet (figure 3), we recommend the following basic structure for information on a court Web page:

The up-to-date comparison of court Web pages is possible anytime at the CoCoNet Web page [2].

Further development of the project

As of 3 February 1997, three of the four courts were connected to the Internet with full Internet Protocol (IP) connectivity. (The fourth court--the Russian--was to be connected in the next few weeks). Each court runs its WWW server and publishes court decisions in its native language and court workers have started to use Internet services, mainly e-mail and WWW.

After the first stage of the project is complete, the project will probably continue in connecting other constitutional courts in Central and Eastern Europe and supporting Internet communication between CoCoNet participants. Furthermore, we would like to do the following:

Now in cooperation with the Villanova University Law School, which offers its people and software, the project continues in wider dimensions. The goal of the Villanova Center for Information Law and Policy [3] is as follows:


During the three years of the project, more and more information concerning constitutional issues has appeared on the Internet. Today, the four courts that have participated in the project can say they are ready to use the power of Internet. Yes, the Internet has a power to connect not only computers and networks, but also people, institutions, countries, and cultures. And as we have helped the Internet serve constitutionalism, the constitution is in service for us--the citizens.


[1] Centre for Study of Constitutionslism in Eastern Europe at Chicago University Law School

[2] Links to courts: participants of the project CoCoNet

[3] Villanova Center for Information Law and Policy at University of Villanova Law School