Proposal for Scaling Back Law.gov

A proposal for a scaled-back version of the Law.gov legal open government data initiative has been posted by Kent McKeever, Director of the Columbia University Law School Library.

Professor McKeever proposes mandating end-user access to primary legal materials of the U.S. federal government — on the model of U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO)’s Federal Register on GPO Access, but not requiring the U.S. federal government to provide access to those materials in bulk XML free of charge. Further, he proposes refraining from requiring state governments to provide access to primary law, and urges instead the development of “a program … to guide and help the individual states achieve the same level of publication.” Professor McKeever’s proposal does not appear to mention local governments.

I agree with many aspects of Professor McKeever’s vision for Law.gov at the federal level, but I disagree with the view that Law.gov should be scaled back. In particular, I disagree with Professor McKeever’s arguments respecting bulk XML access, and respecting whether Law.gov should seek to require state and local governments to provide free public access to legal materials.

Respecting bulk XML access, I offer three points. First, Professor McKeever’s proposal does not appear to mention the needs of scholarly researchers for access to large sets of legal information in machine readable formats, which needs have been expressed at previous Law.gov workshops (see, e.g., here and here).

Second, Professor McKeever’s proposal does not appear to consider whether government entities that engage in XML-based publishing — such as GPO — would incur substantial additional cost by providing the same XML files with which they generate legal materials for individual end-users, in bulk to the public free of charge, as GPO in fact now does respecting the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations, and as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office does respecting patent and trademark records.

Third, Professor McKeever’s proposal does not consider how bulk access to primary legal materials in XML spurs innovation in egovernment technology that can benefit citizens. For example, GPO’s decision to provide bulk access to the Federal Register in XML, free of charge, enabled research institutions to create innovative prototype erulemaking systems — including the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy‘s FedThread, the Cornell e-Rulemaking Initiative‘s Regulation Room, and WestEd‘s GovPulse. The purpose of these projects is to develop technology to facilitate citizens’ participation in the creation of law and policy. Such technology is intended to benefit end-users — i.e., citizens — not “information re-packagers.”

Respecting whether the Law.gov project should seek to require state and local governments to provide free public access to their primary legal materials, I would argue that it should, because:

  • Since U.S. citizens are subject to a great number of state and local laws, lack of ready access to those laws prevents citizens from fully participating in society, and imposes significant unnecessary costs on citizens for engaging in a range of socially beneficial commercial and non-commercial activities; and
  • Research conducted in connection with the Law.gov project (see, e.g., here and here) has shown that state and local laws are frequently subject to copyright restrictions, and omitting those laws from the Law.gov project would mean losing a valuable opportunity to educate the public and policy makers about those restrictions, and to challenge those restrictions.

Click here for more information about the Law.gov legal open government data project.

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