Law.Gov: Access to the Raw Materials of Our Democracy

Open government seeks to make the workings and information of government more accessible to all. One important aspect of open government is enabling access to one of the most basic forms of government information – the law.  As John Podesta, President of Center for American Progress said during the opening to today’s “Law.Gov” conference:

What it’s about is making all primary materials in the United States more readily available, from water districts, counties, cities, and states all the way up to the three branches of the federal government. It isn’t about building the ultimate web site and putting WestLaw out of business.  What Law.gov aims to achieve is changing how governmental bodies that make the law present their work product – pushing government to meet the basic requirement that the public has easy access to their work product.

Access to the law is vital to ensuring the rule of law. It also has very practical consequences of relevance to our daily lives. As Carl Malamud, organizer of the Law.gov conference pointed out:

If you want to make juice in California, you need much more than a good supply of mangos.… Title 17 of the California Code of Regulations deals with Sanitation in Food Plants. The Office of Administrative Law of the State of California asserts copyright over the California Code of Regulations and contracts with Barclays to publish the document. You can view the provisions on their web site, but I can’t make a copy that looks differently, say one that is aimed specifically at juice guys…. And, of course, you need to be fully familiar with the HACCP regulations, series of detailed standards on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points from the Food and Drug Administration. The HACCP regulations, in turn, incorporate by reference a raft of technical standards such as ANSI/NSF Standard Number 7 for Commercial Refrigerators and Storage Freezers, which is $100 per copy, if you want to do due diligence on your freezer and read the tech spec. These documents are just a start for the serious juice professional.

It is not self-evident that the law is available. As Erika Wayne, Deputy Law Librarian at Stanford Law School went on to describe, eight states assert copyright, which restricts use of the online versions of their codes. At least one state provides access to case law for a fee.  PACER, the federal courts court records online system, imposes eight cent per page cost that several speakers commented on as limiting access to court records. Rather than going to fund PACER, much of the money collected ($129 million) goes largely to fund other courtroom technology, said Stephen Schultze of Princeton University.  If the courts made court records available in bulk form, "they might be able to provide the services for free and, at the same time, enabling third-party innovators to develop new products."

Even when material is free, it may not be accessible and, in addition, private information that shouldn’t be available may not be adequately protected. “Access to the law doesn’t simply mean access to the courtroom,” said Schultze. “We have to make sure that our practices in today’s new technological environment respect our principles with regard to openness as well as privacy.”

A number of White House officials are participating in today’s event because the White House Open Government Initiative is following the law.gov movement closely. We are interested in feedback regarding what the Federal government might do to support access to legal information.

You can follow the proceedings live online today and view the archive here

Beth Noveck is United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer and Director of White House Open Government Initiative.

Your Federal Tax Receipt