Law.gov – Open Sourcing U.S. Legal Documents

In a webinar about Gov 2.0 on Tuesday, publisher and conference convener Tim O’Reilly referred to Carl Malamud as the father of the Gov 2.0 movement. Wednesday, Malamud was in San Francisco at the Mitchell Kapor Foundation offices for the 10th in a series of 15 workshops he’s hosting around the country for his current project, Law.gov, which aims to create an authenticated bulk data feed for all primary legal materials in the U.S. Malamud is not a lawyer, but he’s met plenty – allies and adversaries – in his time as the nation’s “rogue archivist.” If you want open government, Malamud’s your go-to guy.
Wednesday’s series of panelists balanced open data dreams with hard truths about privacy in the globalized infoweb. Bob Berring, a UC Berkeley law professor, summed up the core issue: Carl is working on a 10 year old’s question: Government has laws. We have to obey those laws. Where are they? Twitter in-house counsel Alexander Macgillivray talked about the difficulty for legal staff’s at small companies to afford basic research because of high Westlaw and Lexis fees – fees that units of government pay as well for access to legal documents.
Malamud believes that the law is one area that the disintermediating promise of the Internet has barely touched, and he brought in friend O’Reilly for a lunchtime discussion with California Secretary of State Debra Bowen.
“What are we missing as a society because we are denied access to what is essentially the open source of our democracy?” O’Reilly asked.
A recurring theme was the problem of authentication of legal materials online, and the implied authority of the two major vendors. Erika Wayne, a Stanford law librarian, asked if anyone had seen an “informational only” disclaimer – common on web legal materials – on a physical book.
Chris Hoofnagle, a privacy researcher and UC Berkeley law professor also had a stark warning about the need to protect individual privacy as advocates seek to put more government information online. He argued that believers in “Big Brother” powers for the government – “I’m serious” – will use the language of the transparency movement to accomplish their goal of a surveillance society.
Despite the serious mission and very real challenges, the promising theme of open data, Law 2.0 mashups and lowered barriers to legal knowledge was not lost. Said Macgillivray, imagine a statue with its own Twitter account, tweeting its revisions. Another common theme was that local governments are some of the most open – creating universal standards for data release is the challenge.

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