Vincent Chuang
Mar 30, 2017 · 4 min read

Technology and the Value of "Accessible" and "Open" Laws - Part 3



(Ed. Note: This Part 3 of a three-part series on accessibility, openness, and how technology can improve both for the law. In Part 1, we discussed the differences between accessibility and openness, and took a deep dive into accessibility. In Part 2, we discussed why the law isn’t truly “open” and why you can’t do “whatever you want” with it.)

So what can technology do to realize the promise of accessible and open laws?

In some cases, not that much. Some barriers to access and openness are issues solvable only through the political process. Whether and how copyright should apply to laws and codes, for instance, is a question technology can’t answer.[7]

But in other cases, technology can do a lot. Many of the barriers to access and openness are symptoms of an underlying problem: cost. The cost of applying human labor to a complex, repetitive, text-heavy process known as legal publishing.

Laws, in the sense of legislative actions, are not consumed in the form they are passed. In order for each law to make sense, it has to be considered in context of all other laws. This means compiling the laws into a topical collection called the “code”. Imagine, for example, the difference between scientific journals and encyclopedias. The former is a constant stream of new information on a variety of topics that builds on, amends, and sometimes obviates old information. The latter is a topical collection of ideas and, in a perfect world, always up to date with the newest information.

Like the encyclopedia, someone must take the laws and assemble the code. And here lies the complex, repetitive, text-heavy problem. Some laws are two pages. Others are two hundred. Either way, there is a lot of copying, pasting, deleting, and typing. And not only is it time consuming, it is also error prone.

Whether it is going through the codification process or checking the results, it is ultimately a lot of work that takes a lot of time. Many cities outsource this work to third party vendors. These vendors charge the cities a small upfront fee and make their profit by charging governments and the public for access to the law. The vendors also protect their output by applying restrictive copyrights and terms of service. The exact opposite of accessible and open.

If history can teach us any lessons, it is that a text-heavy, manual process can be automated. Instead of having humans implement changes to the code after a law is passed, each law can be annotated with information detailing the ways it should transform the code. A codification engine can take these annotated laws and automatically generate a new revision of the code. And because the output is controlled through software, computer-readable formats can be generated alongside human-friendly ones.

The underlying technology is complex, but the end effects are not. By automating the process, the labor costs are dramatically reduced. This removes many of the incentives that for-profit publishers have to keep the law under lock and key, paving a way for governments to publish accessible and open laws.

And this takes us all the way back to the beginning.

Whether it is the inability to get the law we need or the inability to share the law with those around us, the way we currently interact with the law runs counter to how fundamental the law is to our society.

It is often very difficult to access the law. “Official” versions of the code are still printed on paper and stored away in city hall. The code found online is trapped in terrible websites that load slowly and have poor search functionality. Getting a more functional version of the website, if that’s even available, requires paying money. Computer-readable versions of the law aren’t even on the radar.

Even if we can find the law, we often can’t use it the way we want to. Sharing the law is often difficult because the laws aren’t published with sharing as a priority. Sharing is sometimes entirely prevented because the publisher pushes its weight around with copyrights and terms of service. Sharing isn’t the only victim. Limitations on using the law are abundant, and freedoms like reading, downloading, or printing the law are impinged.

But all of this can change if we work to fix the structure that causes these poor outcomes. Technology is certainly no panacea. There are problems in this space that depend on the legal system and political will. But for the problems that technology can fix, the labor-intensive publishing process for instance, leveraging technology can change the economics of the situation and empower governments to publish laws as a public good. The path to innovation can have one fewer roadblock.

[7] Although it must be said that technology can often change the assumptions underlying any legal framework. Consider for example the tension that has arisen because the cost of duplicating and distributing creative works has trended to zero.