Law.Gov: America's Operating System, Open Source

Public.Resource.Org is very pleased to announce that we’re going to be working with a distinguished group of colleagues from across the country to create a solid business plan, technical specs, and enabling legislation for the federal government to create Law.Gov. We envision Law.Gov as a distributed, open source, authenticated registry and repository of all primary legal materials in the United States. More details on the effort are available on our Law.Gov page.

The process we’re going through to create the case for Law.Gov is a series of workshops hosted by our co-conveners. At the end of the process, we’re submitting a report to policy makers in Washington. The process will be an open one, so that in addition to the main report which I’ll be authoring, anybody who wishes to submit their own materials may do so. There is no one answer as to how the raw materials of our democracy should be provided on the Internet, but we’re hopeful we’re going to be able to bring together a group from both the legal and the open source worlds to help crack this nut.

The idea for Law.Gov seems to be getting a good reception in Washington, D.C. Senator Lieberman, writing on behalf of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the committee responsible for the E-Government Act, has already accepted our request to submit our report to the Committee. Additional formal requests to submit the completed report are outstanding.

Law.Gov is a big challenge for the legal world, and some of the best thinkers in that world have joined us as co-conveners. But, this is also a challenge for the open source world. We’d like to submit such a convincing set of technical specs that there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that it is possible to do this. There are some technical challenges and missing pieces as well, such as the pressing need for an open source redaction toolkit to sit on top of OCR packages such as Tesseract. There are challenges for librarians as well, such as compiling a full listing of all materials that should be in the repository.

Law.Gov is an outgrowth of 3 years of work we’ve done at Public.Resource.Org along with our numerous colleagues in the open law movement across the country. There have been a series of piecemeal successes which have demonstrated that there is a demand and a need for more legal information to be more broadly available. I’m hopeful now that a truly national movement may have coalesced and that there is at least a chance we can bring this across the finish line and create a new function inside of government, the publication of America’s operating system on an open source platform.

The factor that made this coalesce was the recent Government 2.0 Summit put on by Tim O’Reilly. I gave a talk at that summit about the need to put primary legal materials on-line, and it was gratifying to hear the Deputy CTO of the United States, in his closing keynote, highlight that as one of the issues which he thought the White House should help make real through their “moral authority and convening power.” The Government 2.0 Summit was also an example of convening power, and I was very pleased that it was more than yet another conference about open government, it was a forum that brought together people interested in creating real change. Tim O’Reilly, as the Convener-in-Chief, should be congratulated, and I’m hoping that future Summits lead to even more concrete results.

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