a) It allows the public to track all changes made to a law.
b) it allows NGOs and other parties to suggest changes to a law by forking the repo and sending a pull request. 
In summary: no revolutionary shift but a nice tool.
Pretty damn revolutionary.
For the U.S. code, something like Cornell's LII interface, which for a long time has displayed both the current version of the law and, for any section, the history of amendments to that section, seems more user-friendly than a git repo: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text
You're very right. The hard part is knowing where to look in the documents, not where to go to find the documents.
In a former life I spent a bit of time with my nose in the CFR. The hard part was finding the which regulations pertain to me, googling for "47 cfr 73.3526" was a cake walk.
"What you have to do is to just record the conflict and create two parallel universes, one in which the conflict has been resolved using branch A and another one in which the conflict is resolved using branch B. You then keep these two universes alive and apply all the later changes twice. You have to do this until a judge or a legal body declares one of the "branches" the correct one; this may take years and the decision reverted (even partially) many times."
I don't know what settled law is about this, but it is at the least morally questionable activity.
"The issue in this en banc case is the extent to which a private organization may assert copyright protection for its model codes, after the models have been adopted by a legislative body and become "the law". Specifically, may a code-writing organization prevent a website operator from posting the text of a model code where the code is identified simply as the building code of a city that enacted the model code as law? Our short answer is that as law, the model codes enter the public domain and are not subject to the copyright holder's exclusive prerogatives." (Veeck v. SOUTHERN BLDG. CODE CONGRESS INTERN., 293 F. 3d 791 - Court of Appeals, 5th Circuit 2002)
You do not need to pony up the money if Carl Malamud already has a copy of the code. If you have purchased one of these codes and are done with the hardcopy get in touch with Malamud and see if he wants it.
Cory Doctorow explains Carl Malamud's efforts after the Veeck decision: http://boingboing.net/2012/03/19/liberating-americas-secret....
May god continue to bless Mr. Malamud and all of the great work he has done...
In Germany I think it is almost already the case, because if your software project goes awry, the judge will want to know that used current best practices of software development. I only picked that up in passing, though, reading about a case with another focus. But it scares me, because I don't necessarily agree with all current "best practices". Imagine being sued because you didn't include 99% test coverage. Or worse, because you didn't use Java.
“If a Law Isn't Public, It Isn't a Law”—Justice Stephen Breyer
But I believe the distinction here is that just because the law is public, that doesn't mean that you can call up anyone who has a copy of the law (including the organization who wrote the law) and say "Hey, give me a copy of the law."
So orgs like Malamud's get copies of the law and provide them freely to all:
I think a lot of the initial focus/discussion here is about machine-readable interpretation and management of laws themselves, and hence the challenges of turning gray into black and white - but I think that having a historical, digital record of changes in laws -- especially if clear attributions to individuals or groups can be made -- could be just as significant, if not more so.
Imagine having a full historical record of legal changes across and within a nation, and the data measurements to back up the effects of those changes. The results could be linked back to the individuals/groups involved in drafting the laws - data-based legal review.
Sometimes it's claimed it's about precedent, and indeed some civil law jurisdictions claim that they do not believe in binding precedent. But of course for a legal system to be at all useful, decisions need to be consistent, and the idea that you can achieve consistency by writing every detail in a code so that every decision logically follows from the code is bullshit; if that were the case, all civil lawsuits would be 100% predictable and therefore rational actors would settle them and the judges could all go on vacation.
The reasoning I once read in some Dutch first-year law course notes was along the lines of "we don't do _stare decisis_, but we support equal treatment in equal cases, and it would be unequal treatment to treat you in way X when we treated the other guy in way Y, so we're going to follow precedent, but not because we must follow precedent, but only to avoid unequal treatment." I suppose that it is true that digging up absolutely ancient judgments is a little bit less convincing in a civil law setting, especially if there are periodic recodifications so that you can simply toss away a 17th-century precedent by saying it was an interpretation of the old code, not the new one.
Some say the difference is codification, but as you point out, not all status in common law jurisdictions are just piles of unrelated acts: a lot of the time, they are organized as systematic codes that are amended just like civil law codes. And besides, civil law countries have uncodified case law, too. The section on torts in the French civil code, for instance, is incredibly terse, saying basically that if you unfairly harm somebody you must compensate them. But of course France has tort law just like England does. Interestingly, since French court decisions do not normally provide much reasoning aside from quoting sections of the codes, the details of that tort law get elaborated mostly by law professors in books and articles; but in other civil law jurisdictions, like Germany, judges write long, reasoned decisions just like in the US (except more stilted and formulaic in style). And Scotland, considered traditionally a civil law country, has lots of English-style uncodified legislation.
So maybe then it's the Roman basis? Nah. English law had lots of Roman influence, too, and continental law had lots of influence from local customary law, canon law, and the law merchant. (Just read Berman to find out the details.) Maybe the continentals were bigger on pretending that it was all Codex Iuris Civilis all the time, but nobody ever really believed that.
So then what? Sometimes you hear particular doctrines called out as being significantly different, like consideration in in common contract law as opposed to the intention to be bound in the civil law of obligations. But the consideration rule has so many exceptions that if you can reasonably be thought to have intended to be bound, you'd better know the law very precisely if you still want to get out from under things based on lack of consideration. Besides, consideration may not be required in the civil law, but a payment can serve as evidence of a nonwritten contract.
That's not to say that there are no differences, but it's hard to pin down anything that really applies in all civil law jurisdictions and no common law jurisdictions or vice versa. Notaries, I think, are a pretty consistent difference, although they don't exist in some Asian civil-law jurisdictions.
Sadly though alot of laws due to changes and word-smith pervertions can be hard to understand and in that it would be nice if there was some universal way to express law's that you could get any law in any country and express. That would be immpressive though hard to do. Only comparision would be picture based traffic signs, that is somewhat as close to universal with regards to laws as can get.
Be nice when all the countries have there laws up in such a way. Will make grepping alot more fun and probrbaly be the birth of lgrep (law-grep).
That sort of stuff easily gets lost in translation, which is why legal translation is such a pain to do. And probably a good part of why it took the English courts so long to switch from Law French (an old dialect of Norman French long used for English legal writing) to English.
Also, this: "All German citizens can easily find an up-to-date version of their laws online."
And it's only 130 megs of markdown when zipped (246 unzipped)! A mere 4,737,628 lines! Surely you have time to read it, right? And therefore be a well-informed, law-abiding citizen?
I wonder how big America's would be :|
 `wc -l $(find . -name '*.md')` admittedly very rough
The Bundesanzeiger is merely the last step in the law making process. First, the two law making institutions (Bundestag, Bundesrat) have to vote in favor of the law and the president has put his X under it. Only after the law is published in the Bundesanzeiger it takes effect.
This is why it is hard to make current versions of X, Y or Z in terms of a version control.
It is also common to have laws X and Y both applying in the same context, and sometimes it is not clear which one is newer or how to apply "An update to X".
It is little easier to work on a more fine grain, in terms of sections and articles and not the law text as a whole, but this makes it a lot less official.
And there was me hoping they had fixed that! Ahwell, one step at a time :)
There are some attempts to formalize something like the pragmatic view, too (oddly enough), in artificial intelligence "legal argumentation" systems, which try to model the back-and-forth of adversarial legal systems, determining when to bring up an argument, how to counter an argument, etc.
Policymakers could get automated compile errors when trying to craft conflicting laws. They could instantly compute what the effect of a law change is on this and that demographic or persona.
That just made my day :)
It's actually a good idea, I think. I'm just not exactly sure whether that would work because laws govern the real world and in the real world, logic isn't binary.
However, such laws would at least be understandable for mere programmers ;)
data Offense = MensRea | ActusReus
CriminalLaw :: [Offense] -> Punishment
ExtenuatingCircumstances :: CriminalLaw -> [Circumstance] -> ExtenuatingEffect -> Punishment
And I was excited for a moment...
Doesn't change the commit history's melange of English and German.
The Eurobarometer report from 2006 says 56% of Germans speak English.
But I suspect that rather underestimates the case here. There is a huge difference between someone checking a box on a form that says they can speak English and being able to parse short messages in English.
And given only fairly educated, tech-savvy Germans are likely to participate in this, I think the negative effect from English commits is straight up zero, or at worst incredibly low.
I have gotten reactions from "Why did you bother to learn German? Everyone here speaks English" to "Gott sei dank! Du kannst Deutsch" ("Thank god! You can speak German")
I'd like my government to do the same! Don't really care about the versioning system, as long as it's open-source and alive.
The only part that is so terrible and draconic that everybody knows about it is the GEMA, which is concerned with music and loyalties.
God bless America.
Gov XML initiative: http://xml.gov/
House XML Initiative: http://xml.house.gov/
Code of Federal Regulations (XML format): http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/bulkdata/CFR e.g: CFR Chapter 12 (regulation of banks. 12cfr30 is customer information security at banks if you are interested) http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2012-title12-vol1/xml/CFR-2...
GovTracks About / Data Sources Page: http://www.govtrack.us/about
EDITED: To include links to the Code of Federal Regulations
Honest question, did you even search for reasons that this would be feasible or did you just rush in to make an anti-US comment?