Stories like this are a good reminder that the most valuable information is still being concealed by those with the power. They use their position, money, and authority to protect it at all costs.
We still have a long way to go.
I long to see the day when laws and other civic documents are compiled and evolved in some source control like git or something domain specific for such documents.
It seemed to work fine to record incremental changes, tag specific revisions as being checkpoints for various stages of review and approvals. And anyone could search current and historical versions.
The overall legislation system needs flexibility to deal with complex and changing workflows, but storing documents (with change over time) and the links between them can be encoded just fine. As long as there are flexible ways to string them together, they can be represented in whatever structure makes sense: final law with all current amendments; original law, with amendments as annotations, separate pieces of legislation, linked by the overall law, etc. None of that has to be encoded in a super-strict heirarchy, but as long as it's all being stored in can be presented however one wants.
I don't see the fatal flaw. I see imperfections and compromises, but not the flaw so bad as to say "don't bother".
Do you mind sharing with us the company and the product you developed in this space?
Untrustworthy laws are rather more foolish than doing revision tracking on English text. I mean... FFS how hard is it to track changes to English text? Really?
It's not for software, it's for text. Is the law no longer written in text?
The procedure is similar to they way git is used for code though with a greater or lesser amount of automation - in the old days you had multiple documents and you physically cut and pasted them together to produce the final document
That's not to say that lack of access isn't a major problem - it is - but even when you solve that, you're going to be left with the much bigger lack of interest problem.
“When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.”
It's extremely disingenuous to call people lazy for not analyzing all of that when there is not a single person on the planet who has done so
Wasn't there recently an uproar in the U.S. about a [state/municipality/or some such] that gave copyright over to their [regulations/building codes/or some such] to a private entity? Thus, citizens had to pay to know what the law was and couldn't make copies.
This seems right along the lines of what op was talking about.
My memory is too fuzzy to get a good search result so if anyone could help out with the specifics I would appreciate it.
Malamud had worked with Aaron Swartz on opening up Pacer:
And he was joined by the EFF defending against a suit by the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors Association after he published the details of a Federally-mandated safety standard:
Much trickier is "incorporation by reference," which is when the official law or regulation says "as part of our building codes we're going to adopt the 2012 version of the International Building Code in its entirety, and then amend it as follows..." without actually including the text of the IBC (or the fire code, or whatever), which is a document created by a private entity, and is copyrighted. This happens all the time, across levels of government, and it pretty clearly poses a problem, but it's not really clear whose fault it is or what to do about it. Individual city governments don't have the requisite expertise to concoct an entire set of fire codes for themselves, and it's not clear you'd want them to: we arguably all benefit from having the greatest experts in the country craft the best possible code, and product makers that sell across markets benefit from having a uniform standard. But because professional associations end up taking on this role since no single government will, it's not clear how to pay for the work of researching and writing the code, so they end up self-funding by selling the text itself. It's not clear that either the governments or the organizations are in the wrong, even if the public ends up suffering.
However, since court decisions about US law are based on prior rulings, the text itself is mostly useless and doesn't actually tell you what the whole law is. It's like an Ikea assembly manual without pictures.
The Official Code of Georgia is available online for free. However, the Official Code of Georgia Annotated is not. The law itself is not copyrighted, merely the annotations. The annotations are produced by private companies (Westlaw and LexisNexis), but are considered essential for legal research purposes. So although they are private written works subject to copyright, they possess something akin to but somewhat less than the power of law.
Most if not all of the major obstacles to full public access to case and statutory law arise from the LexisNexis/Westlaw duopoly over legal research. Courts historically have relied on the companies to collate and publish the reporters containing all the significant judicial opinions, rather than incurring the costs of typesetting and publishing the opinions themselves. They also publish annotated versions of the state and federal statutes and administrative regulations. The annotations make them copyrightable, but also provide added value to legal researchers. Lex/West then turn around and charge enormous sums of money for access to these reporters and annotated codes and to their searchable databases based on those. Many citizens are thus unable to access legal opinions which set common law precedents or statutory interpretations binding as law on those citizens.
Even where the opinions are published online for free by the court, e.g. Supreme Court opinions, lawyers rely heavily on the cross-citation services and topical annotations provided by Lex/West. Raw opinions and statutes just aren't that easy to use for research purposes without a fairly intense indexing system. So even though a lot of law is available for free online, it's hard to make full use of.
A few firms, like FastCase, are trying to produce relatively cheap/free alternatives to the traditional services, but it's extremely difficult to collate and annotate the massive volumes of judicial opinions, administrative decisions, rule makings, and statutes generated at the state and federal levels each year, never mind historically.
On the other hand, it's probably worth mentioning that the more significant a law is, the more likely you will have free access to it. Most inaccessible laws deal with small jurisdictions or narrow issues. Or they require a strong legal education to understand and apply. You may not be able to find an opinion issued by the California Board of Equalization in a 1973 tax dispute about what constitutes constitutionally sufficient notice of a propose adjustment to taxes owed, but the issue is so obscure and technical that access isn't really valuable to the general public anyway. The costs of providing access to that law are more efficiently allocated to the rare individuals who need it than to the general public. Those individuals pay their lawyers who pay West/Lex, who bear the costs of preserving and organizing these legal texts. Or so the argument more or less goes.
Really, this whole debate cuts to the core of the legal profession. Why should people have to pay a premium to ensure they are complying with the law or to resolve a dispute or to defend themselves against charges from the state? Which is really another way of asking, why is the law so complex that an elite caste of specialists is required to administer it?
Anti-SLAPP laws are pretty limited, but a peer over in /r/law had a phenomenal idea for addressing this, which I'm copying over here. There's a little something called a
"'Motion to dismiss for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.'
The fun part is that this is normally used by government entities against citizens. I just don't see any obvious reason it couldn't be used by a citizen against a government agency that has filed a lawsuit the entire point of which is to thwart the exhaustion of an administrative process.
After all, citizens aren't allowed to sue for open records until the open records process is completed, one way or the other. Why should a government entity be permitted to sue before then?"
It indeed sucks that you have to go to court, at your own expense, to defend your lawful right to see information that has to be public. But that has been the case for years, nonprofits like EFF or Judicial Watch has been doing this for years, supported by donations. There's nothing new in this.
> State freedom-of-information laws generally allow requesters who believe they are wrongly denied records to file lawsuits seeking to force their release. If they succeed, government agencies can be ordered to pay their legal fees and court costs. Suing the requesters flips the script: Even if agencies are ultimately required to make the records public, they typically will not have to pay the other side’s legal bills.
Well, the mechanism is simple - you send FOIA request, they decline it because national security, or some regulation, or policy, or it's too hard, or pick another of 10 thousand excuses they can find. Or they send you the documents with all text blacked out (that happened too). Next step, you have to sue, because while they can play any games they want with a regular citizen, with complete impunity, playing the same with a judge would be much more risky and only very well-connected people like top federal officials can get away with it. The rest would probably choose to comply.
> I don't think dismissing something you know to be true as "business as usual" helps.
I'm not dismissing it. I'm saying the title implied agencies retaliate against requestors by suing them, it is misleading - they are doing the same thing as before, clamming up and refusing to provide records. It is still important, but the title is misleading since it gives wrong impression about what's going on.
> There's nothing misleading about the title: they are suing to prevent disclosure.
But the title doesn't say that, and if somebody tells you somebody sued you, that's not the first thing you think of.
going to court is outright intimidation
True, but that's what it always took if the agency you are asking is stonewalling (and they regularly do). As explained above, the new bit turns out they found a way to do it cheaper, so that they can avoid legal costs shifted to them (probably can be fixed by a law, but didn't happen yet).
This category of abuse of our legal system is called "Strategic lawsuit against public participation" or SLAPP.
More information can be found on the Wikipedia page:
I'm surprised this wasn't mentioned in the article. I am not a lawyer, but it would seem that these types of suits would fall squarely in the SLAPP definition.
Weird. Don't you at least have to allege that the defendants did something wrong to start a lawsuit? Even if the requested documents don't have to be released, the requesters didn't do anything wrong. I feel like these lawsuits should be dismissed.
The legal term for that the government is seeking is "declaratory judgement".
"A declaratory judgment, also called a declaration, is the legal determination of a court that resolves legal uncertainty for the litigants. It is a form of legally binding preventive adjudication by which a party involved in an actual or possible legal matter can ask a court to conclusively rule on and affirm the rights, duties, or obligations of one or more parties in a civil dispute (subject to any appeal)."
Here the government is asking the court to declare that the subject matter is off limits, and not available to be released, as a matter of law.
Declaratory judgments are probably best known here on HN with regards to patent litigation. If a company receives a 'cease and desist', alleging the non-licensed use of a patent, that company might file for a declaratory judgement that their product does not actual infringe on the patent.
 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaratory_judgment
Still screwy, IMHO, since as I understand it there is a means for the gov't to deny the request, there is usually some appeals process, whatever.. as article states this seems like a way to buck that process and shunt it to another process which has negative consequences for the requestor in the form of legal fees..
And surprisingly unless it is the exact same branch and department of government forcing it to spend money doesn't teach it a lesson, it just cuts education or start asking for more taxes.
> The court concludes that the right to bring the issue to court belongs exclusively to the requestor, not the government agency.
Does anyone have suggestions on how to keep the first case from happening while making sure privacy rights are respected?
IANAL, but this seems to me to be a perversion of the intent of the laws. I would assume there are pretty clear statutes that indicate when one party can be forced to pay the legal fees of the other (and that those statutes vary from state to state), but aside from the labels of "Plaintiff" and "Defendant", the roles of "Government" and "Citizen requesting records" seem more natural, and should be what's relevant to the outcome of a contested FOIA request.
Then the entire problem is solved.
This is already done with a number of data-sets and should be the gold-standard.
Digitizing, categorizing, paying for storage, etc, could create a spending issue.