This is certainly a problem, but I see a larger, more troubling problem here associated with access to the legal code.
Yes, what laws exist should be made available in as many formats as possible, including some easily accessible electronic format. I doubt that anybody here would disagree with that.
But the real issue here is that there are so many laws and regulations that it becomes impossible for any one human being to know all of them. Any person who goes about their day in a normal fashion breaks multiple laws every day.
When the state starts policing moral and ethical behavior rather than merely defending people against aggression, you come up with page after page of laws and it becomes impossible to know what is correct. This culture of "every problem needs a law to solve it" is in my opinion the priority here, not merely making thousands of pages of useless laws somehow more accessible. You're never going to read them anyway.
There has never been a successful society of an serious complexity that had law that could be codified in a form where one person could understand them all. In feudal England prior to the ascension of the common law courts, instead of law you had power: the King (acting through representatives) or lower lords would adjudicate disputes and regulate society.
Saying "we have too many laws--nobody can know them all at once" is like saying "Linux has too many lines of code--nobody can understand it all at once." The complexity is unavoidable. You can shift it around, but you can't get rid of it.
It's probably not necessary and maybe not possible for it to be possible for one person to know and understand all of the laws for a society to be large, prosperous, fair and just. It probably is possible to have all the laws published on a government-run website that's free for all to access, indexed and cross-referenced.
Furthermore, it is probably possible for most reasonable people in such a society to know what fields of human endeavor are regulated under the law and to look up and understand the applicable regulations. Of course, some fields and their associated regulations are very technical, but it seems to be a reasonable goal that anyone with enough expertise to work in such a field, even as an amateur can also understand the associated laws.
There has never been a successful society of an serious complexity that had law that could be codified in a form where one person could understand them all.
Even if, for the sake of argument, we take that as true... the fact that something hasn't been done yet does not necessarily prove that it's impossible. If everyone simply accepted the status quo as inevitable, we would never make any progress at all.
No, it suggests that it is not in the interests of the powers that be to make things easy and efficient. A hypothesis for which there is much independent evidence.
For example when a regulated group achieves regulatory capture, it is in their interests to create new regulations of great complexity. See, for instance, the way that under Bush regulations on the financial industry increased, at the same time as the amount to which those regulations kept incumbents from doing what they wanted to decreased.
Heres an example from the UK. Like everywhere in the world we have laws which govern how you construct buildings. In most cases the actual law concerning disabled access just says 'PART M ACCESS TO AND USE OF BUILDINGS
Access and use
M1. Reasonable provision shall be made for
(a) gain access to; and (b) use
the building and its facilities.'
There is then a whole set of pre approved conventions for what constitutes 'reasonable provision'. But crucially if you could show that, say, maglev chariots would satisfy this part of the regulation rather than a ramp then you can do this. About 10 years ago I also worked briefly on a building in New York and I was surprised how inflexible the building codes were. I don't claim to fully understand the code, but in some cases the law even appeared to specify a particular manufacturers products had to be used. From this, I suspect that the US has a culture of writing over complicated and voluminous laws, but I don't know enough to say if this is really the case. Maybe someone can argue otherwise?
There are two separate issues here: the scope of regulatory institutions (in the broad sense of the word "regulatory") and how much guidance is provided via law for the exercise of regulatory power within that scope. The volume of law is a function of these two variables.
I think the size of our regulatory institutions are, within an order of magnitude, consistent with the needs of our enormous and complex society. Within that scope, I would favor codifying less and leaving more to the discretion of regulatory bodies. That would lead to a reduction in the volume of law in trade for an accretion of power in regulatory bodies. I think dramatic reductions in the scope of regulation would lead to diminished prosperity. I don't think there is a practical way to reduce the volume of law while holding both variables constant.
So in short, I don't think we have an "excess" of law, at least not within an order of magnitude. It's hard to argue with success--America and England are the two most legalistic societies in the history of the world, and are also the two most successful. I think the scope of their regulatory institutions should get some credit for that success, a basic enabler of highly complex, integrated, organized, specialized industrial society.
As an aside, consider something like the internet. The internet has a lot of "law": Ethernet, LTE, TCP/IP, HTML, CSS, JS, DOC, PDF, SMTP, POP, etc. And that's just for the relatively simple task of exchanging two dimensional mostly textual documents! Nobody implements all these correctly, but would the internet be as successful without them?
Fundamentally, we need some people telling everyone what to do and how to do it. At some level. You can't build the world we live in without that. There are various ways to do it, but law is how you do it in a mostly democratic manner.
I generally agree with you about the necessity of complexity, but the "law" of the internet is actually a counterexample: Nobody enforces it. If you want to start with something that vaguely resembles HTML and make a bunch of changes and call it XML and start using it, nobody comes to your door with a warrant for your arrest and locks you in a cell, or even sues you for breach of contract. It's quintessentially private ordering, where everybody does it the same (to the extent that they do) voluntarily because in those cases compatibility with others is more advantageous than diverging from the standard.
And it is probably worth looking through the laws for instances where consensus-based processes like that could, perhaps not eliminate, but move some of the complexity from the regulatory system where it serves as a trap for the unwary into voluntary standards that work because it's in everyone's interest to follow them.
At the same time, you can still have a set of guidelines and issue warnings (but not penalties) for violations so that people will have notice that if the evil the guidelines are intended to prevent occurs as a result of their violation they'll be responsible for it. Sort of like a compiler warning. But if no evil results because you're doing something sensible but merely unanticipated, or because you've taken some alternative precautions with similar effectiveness, then no penalty would attach as long as no evil occurs.
This approach probably works best where the consequences of a violation don't involve risk of physical harm. Allowing a certain amount of risk of economic harm that the perpetrator is required to compensate for or be punished for causing in the event it occurs is much more palatable than the same when the risk is physical injury, because economic harm can be perfectly compensated for or insured against in ways that physical injury obviously can't.
> I generally agree with you about the necessity of complexity, but the "law" of the internet is actually a counterexample: Nobody enforces it.
It's a counter example in the context of a discussion about alternative ways to enforce (or not) rules, but not in a discussion about the complexity of the rules themselves.
As for enforcement, I agree it's interesting to look at examples of cooperative processes, but a relevant distinction is that breaking rules on the internet don't usually have consequences to other people. When they do, we do get calls to "enforce" the rules, e.g. in the context of net neutrality.
>It's a counter example in the context of a discussion about alternative ways to enforce (or not) rules, but not in a discussion about the complexity of the rules themselves.
I guess I'm trying to distinguish between rules (that are enforced) and standards or principles that are adhered to voluntarily, with the point being that you can in many cases reduce complexity in the rules by moving it somewhere else that doesn't require coercion to operate.
>As for enforcement, I agree it's interesting to look at examples of cooperative processes, but a relevant distinction is that breaking rules on the internet don't usually have consequences to other people.
I would think they generally would: If someone doesn't follow the standard then compatibility is impaired and the users of that software won't be able to interact fully or at all with users of software that does comply with the standard. That certainly negatively impacts them if they desire that compatibility, we just haven't chosen to make that negative impact illegal/punishable in most cases.
>When they do, we do get calls to "enforce" the rules, e.g. in the context of net neutrality.
Network neutrality is probably a bad example of "internet" regulation because despite the name it's really telecommunications regulation, which is a very different animal. The need for network neutrality comes from the existence of other telecommunications regulations: If (hypothetically) Uncle Sam didn't exclusively license the wireless spectrum or provide only select companies with massive subsidies and access to eminent domain to lay cable then there would be no call for network neutrality, but once the government steps in to establish a monopoly or cartel it then has to limit its power.
I would think the better example of your point would be Microsoft being hit with antitrust for breaking compatibility with Java in breach of the license.
That's not true, the Code of Hammurabi had 282 laws which really was it. Now most people could not read but the average person had a much better understanding of what to avoid doing. The issue is the separation between well understood laws with fuzzy edge cases and laws that people simply don't know about.
I wouldn't call ancient Babylon a "seriously complex" society. Pre-industrial societies have limited complexity. When everyone is mostly a self-sufficient farmer on his own land minding his own business, the need for law is dramatically lessened than industrial societies where all the necessities of sustaining one life may be the product of the labor of thousands of different people all interacting with each other.
Also: Babylon was essentially a dictatorship. You don't need law when one person is empowered to call all the shots.
Babylon had large city's and a range of industry's. We are not talking about self sufficient farmers but weavers, blacksmiths, potters, architects, construction workers, priests, teachers, warriors, etc. They dealt with complex issues like what happens when you build someone a house and it falls down killing the son of the person that bought the house.
I think social complexity scales non-linearly with size and population density (like code complexity), and also scales with things like the number of people possibly affected by one person's activity. Our society is easily millions of times more complex than ancient Babylon.
That's more or less irrelevant to to the legal code. Consider what laws could we remove with 150 million people or how dealing with 600 million people force a lot of new legal complexity.
What really leads to complexity in the legal code is the level of institutionalized corruption. AKA only companies owned by someone living within 50 miles of X and 30 miles of Y may do XYZ. Coupled with the age of the legal system which adds cruft over time.
Facebooks social graph is incredibly complex, the code that maintains it is slightly more complex than what you would need for 1/10 the users and 1/100th the social graph.
Yes, that law was an exaggeration but there are plenty of examples that include specifics on where the headquarters is which is effectively the same thing.
As to pork, the 50 billion sandy bill 17 billion relating to sand and then a bunch of random junk such as 33 million for Amtrack which is a for profit company. Now in this case nobody felt the need to hide it, but there are plenty of past spending bills aka law that have really specific contract requirements. EX: 693,000$ (~1/20,000th the budget) for beef improvement research in Missouri and Texas went to the Beef Improvement Federation as the only group meeting the requirements despite not being directly named in law. Granted by it's self not a big deal but plenty of things such as vary narrow import tarrifs stick around ex: refined vs raw sugar. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/sc019
Really, though, if we all backed up a bit, I think many of us would agree with some of both sides in this discussion, like throwaway's general point that efforts to simplify legal codes could be very valuable, even if we probably don't want to rigidly subscribe to the "someone should be able to easily learn all laws" test.
Linux is designed with a much friendlier user interface. I see no way of doing this in America, but I'd like to see an experimental society where engineering principles are applied to writing the laws.
I agree the problem you mention is important but you really shouldn't derail the important point of the parent to rail about your important, somewhat-related but distinct issue. Write a blog, submit it here (with yet another throwaway account if you feel the need). Access to legal codes and excess proliferation of legal codes both matter, both should be talked about and both benefit from avoiding cross talk.
I had thought Hacker News was smart enough to avoid letting even the most intelligent, well articulated thread derailment to get to the top of its pages.
>Any person who goes about their day in a normal fashion breaks multiple laws every day.
I've heard this assertion so many times, and after thinking about it, I don't think it's actually true. I agree with the sentiment of your comment, but I don't think I'm actually breaking multiple laws every day. Feel free to prove me wrong.
Edit: Could anyone at least provide me with an example of some laws that many people, and perhaps I, break every day unknowingly? That would be a start.
That's the whole point of the flashing. It tells you when it's too late to start walking and make it across the street before the light changes. Some cities have a little quick-reference guide stuck to the pole to remind you of this.
Here in Seattle it used to be quite common to get a ticket for jaywalking. Now it only seems to happen if you block traffic flow on a downtown street during rush hour.
Do you browse non-work-relevant websites on your company provided computer outside your lunch hour or other explicitly defined break times and against defined company policy? You've "exceeded authorized access".
Do you have specific knowledge of someone possessing controlled substances in a jurisdiction or situation where they're forbidden (e.g., someone in a medical marijuana state who possesses even misdemeanor amounts of pot but doesn't have official medical sanction for its use, or anyone possessing any amount in a "dry" state)? Obstruction of justice.
Have you ever taken a "mental health day" and called in sick when you aren't actually sick? You've defrauded your employer.
These are all acts specifically described as illegal by the relevant statute.
EDIT: clarifying language on "exceeding authorized access" case.
I don't think that ruling means what you think it means.
The court adopted this interpretation and expanded its scope, ruling that an employee "exceeds authorized access" under the CFAA when they use a computer in way that violates an employer's access restrictions...
They decided that, as a logical extension of this finding, the question of whether an employee "exceeds authorized access" is likewise determined by the employer's actions, including (but not limited to) the promulgation of computer use restrictions. Since Korn/Ferry indeed had such computer use restrictions, which the defendants violated when they accessed the executive database for fraudulent purposes, the Ninth Circuit court reversed the district court's decision and remanded the district court to reinstate the five counts under Section (a)(4). 
If your employer says you can't browse Facebook or Hacker News with your work computer, and you do, you're "exceeding authorized access".
"The result of the hearing was published April 10th 2012 and states that the court chose a narrow interpretation of the CFAA, holding that the phrase “exceeds authorized access” in the CFAA does not extend to violations of use restrictions."
The people we have elected to make the laws have steadily moved in the direction that "we the people" on a jury (grand or otherwise) can't determine whether someone has committed a crime or not so everything must be codified so we no longer can determine our own cultural and common law.
Perhaps we should focus on writing laws that protect people and allow common sense back into our court rooms? These "protecting" laws would primarily used by appellate courts to throw out "bad" convictions (i.e. ones where race or social class likely were used as motive to convict someone, thus preventing legal injustices such as were committed during the Jim Crow era).
While I entirely agree in principle with the idea that laws cannot solve all problems, I must disagree that we should aim for a society where any one person can understand all the laws.
Our society is extremely complex. There are many many industries and activities that need to be individually regulated. Let's take a few examples of very specific, arcane laws that are important for everyday people who might not even know about them.
Suppose you buy a home, and in the bathroom, there is an exhaust fan. You use that fan for years, and one day discover that it has been venting into your attic, and that your attic is thus absolutely full of toxic mold that will cost a small fortune to remove. And if you don't remove it, you're endangering your health and possibly making your house unsellable.
As it turns out, most jurisdictions in the US require, by way of the building code, that bathroom exhaust fans be vented directly outside. Had that law been in place in your jurisdiction, perhaps you wouldn't have a mold problem today.
Now imagine the FTC doesn't exist, or perhaps that its regulations are vastly simplified. You have a pension plan. You don't pay much attention to how your pension fund is invested. One day, you see on the news that your pension fund has dropped in value by 50%. It turns out the plan was heavily invested in a certain company that looked good in its prospectus but was actually in very bad shape.
If today's FTC existed, with its complex and obscure regulations on how a company must report its financial state, perhaps your pension fund managers would have been able to make a better decision.
Now suppose you rent an apartment. Your landlord turns the heat way down for no apparent reason, and it's 50 degrees in your unit all the time.
In many jurisdictions, there are laws requiring landlords to provide a minimum level of heating. With such a law in place, you could force the landlord to turn the heat back up.
Each of these examples hinges on a law that most people will probably never think about. Yet you may indeed benefit from them many times in your life, without ever knowing it.
It could also be argued that such laws are not guaranteed to prevent the negative outcomes imagined above. This is true. No law will be obeyed 100% of the time. But that doesn't make them useless. Laws can and do influence behavior--when they come with an adequate enforcement mechanism, that is.
Working with the local Code for America group, we've been trying to put a basic budget app online and it's an amazing clusterfuck. The city published incredibly incomplete budget docs in a Google Fusion table, and more detailed documents in images-embedded-in-PDFs.
Trying to get access to the underlying information and talking with the city's "chief information officer", turns out the actual budget numbers don't really quite add up due to department moves and program changes and such, so they literally have "a guy" who is entering numbers manually into a Word document based on black magic, to make it all add up.
This is the sort of thing where if the tech crowd pushes to get the output data open and accessible, it will be a strong incentive to stop the black magic happening earlier in the process.
"...this is not a failure of the Council itself..."
I'm calling bullshit. The council should make a law that says all legal code stays in the public domain no matter what. Then a legal case would set up, and then all cities would have resolution on this.
There's nobody else but the council. We don't elect lexis-nexis, and council members are the only guys there that represent our interests.
Yes, it's certainly fair to say it's a complex issue, and there are good reasons why it's not available, but make no mistake: the council here is the only party responsible.
I agree to some extent, the Council did hire West to publish their code, rather than self-publishing. Here in Arizona, the state self-published and as a result, the laws are available online (http://www.azleg.state.az.us/arizonarevisedstatutes.asp). I'm not sure I know enough to understand why the Council chose West over self-publication.
You could make your own. Take the bills (which are free) and compile them yourself. Boom, your own copy of the DC Code. You can then release it under a permissive license or whatever.
The hard part is compiling the bills. From the blog,
Each bill is then downloaded by an employee of the
company that wins the contract for maintaining the bill.
This person must hold a law degree from an ABA accredited
law school, and they cannot be a subcontractor.
The action/creativity editing of bills into the law is not a justification for copyright, and it has not been used by West (or any other entity) to claim copyright. West claims copyright on design, annotations, citation, and database structure.
The relevant conclusion from the legal blog: "private publishers can’t claim much copyright protection in state codes:"
The article and the HN comments linked are about attempts by private publishers to lay claim to state codes, not about their success in doing so. The blog article concluded that they would be completely unsuccessful as to copyrighting the text itself and generally cites case law supporting this proposition. (See the blog for the cites.)
As I stated before, the text of the state codes cannot be copyrighted as a basic rule of American law.
Other aspects can be copyrighted, and this is where copyright gets tricky. The formatting (i.e., presentation) of a state code can be copyrighted, as can analysis of the code (b/c that is a distinct work), and the particular database selection can also be copyrighted within reason (meaning the particular choice of items stored and the relationships between them, so long as such choice and relationships are not purely functional).
Just scan the books, OCR the scans, and remove the copyrighted information that the publisher added to the codes. You then have a perfectly legal, digital copy. Nobody does this because the codes change over time and there's no way to protect your work. It would be freely available to everyone as soon as the first copy hits an open server. It would also be nearly worthless as soon as the new version comes out (do you want to be the attorney that shows up to court without knowing the new changes?).
The language to describe changes isn't fully standardized (at least for the US Code, I'm not familar with DC's legislative practices.) If you browse around it looks standard, but there are plenty of exceptions. So the best you can do is use a program to do a first pass.
Although it's absurd, it's been claimed many times before. For example, municipalities incorporate model building codes as law, which publishers objected to being placed online. In 2002 this issue bubbled up to the 5th circuit which held that the laws were not subject to copyright protection. The case is Veeck v. Southern Building Code Congress, 293 F.3d 791:
I was thinking of Veek as I was reading the article. <IANAL> But my understanding is that model codes can by protected by copyright, but that once they are adopted as law, they cannot be. On the other hand, lack of public access is due to the particular option DC chose - Municode.com has been around for at least twelve years. We used it as the reference for city employees when I worked in city government.
I would argue that if a "law" is not fully in the public domain, it is formally unconstitutionally vague. If the information within is legally a secret, something I cannot acquire without pursuing a commercial arrangement with a private party on a voluntary basis, then the courts cannot reasonably expect me to understand that information, and the legislature has failed to bind me to obey those rules in the eyes of the due process clause of the Constitution.
I don't see it as requiring a special prohibition of "copyrighting laws", it stems directly from the fact that 'not public domain' is a variably mitigated example of 'secret'.
I believe he's hoping the whole legal system would be forced to become less ponderous - sad and not terribly admirable hope. Those people who supported absurdity on the principle that "no one would let such absurdity stand" are a sad footnote in the advance of bureaucratic complexity. The best you can say is they probably haven't done as much damage as the simply greedy.
I cannot understand how its in public domain and you are not allowed to make a digital copy. Obviously if someone has gone through the process of digitizing, even if its in public domain, they can have a copyright over the specific digital copy. However that doesn't stop you from creating a copy yourself, right ? For sure that's not easily done but still that doesn't mean you are not allowed to do so. Am i missing something ?
so a citizen's access to a particular DC statute is impossible without that citizen infringing a copyright? I wonder if circumstances such as these would constitute "fair use" (which as i understand it is a valid defense to copyright infringement).
also, i'm aware that doing things that would otherwise constitute intellectual property infringement, can be justified by the "Essential Facilities" doctrine--originally an Anti-Trust safe harbor, though it's also been applied to IP. This seems to apply here.
I assume that it is not the laws that are copyrighted but this concrete representation of them - the same way, say, Beethoven's 5th symphony is not copyrighted but recordings of its performances are - to the performers, not the composer.
As a former TR employee, I can empathize. There is immense value in the West Key Number System, editorial headnotes, aggregating everything, and transforming documents into a consistent, uniform representation. Still, it does feel "off" that TR and Lexis have exclusive contracts for digital delivery of codes and case law for so many jurisdictions.
The Zotero lawsuit in Sept. 2008 broke a lot of my faith. I stuck around for a further two years trying to change things as best I could, and even managed to reshape TR's open source software policy, but I couldn't resolve the cognitive dissonance around competent legal practice virtually requiring a subscription to Westlaw and/or Lexis Nexis.
So, I got out. Ended up way happier. You can get out, too. TR has plenty of brilliant folks--engineers, managers, and executives alike--but it's hard to have organization-scale clarity of purpose and execution when you're dealing with 60,000 people.
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