Legal Information Watch The Videos!

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John Wonderlich

May 27, 2008, 1:01:59 AM5/27/08
Maybe Tom can say more about how he sees the Legal Information Institute movement, but after checking out the videos he recently sent, this is what my reflections look like.  The videos are very powerful, if you're into the idea of public empowerment at all.  (videos up at the link, which goes to the ohp blog, here)

Legal Information as a Global Movement

May 27th, 2008 by John Wonderlich · No Comments

I got three videos through email that make a strong stong point about the international bottom up movement of online information activism that is occuring right now. They're embedded and linked below, so be sure to check them out.

The videos give a brief history of the Legal Information Institute, which has come to be part of the name of a great variety of organizatins around the world that have one set of goals in common. They're working for public access to legal information.

All around the world, without centralized planning, institutes have sprung up in response to a pressing need: non-lawyers have a real use for legal information, but can't get it. In countries across several continents, new initiatives online are successfully giving the general public information that they wouldn't have been able to search before, information that used to be controlled exclusively by the legal information publishing businesses. As businesses, they have a mandate to make profitable decisions, and not necessarily to serve the greater needs of a society. As a result, the public gets locked out of the very laws that control their lives, unable to understand and analyze the legislation or case history that forms the legal structures under which their actions are evaluated by the government.

Not anymore, though. A new transnational initiative has sprung up around the world, responding to the needs of the public information consumer, who may occasionally need real, substantive legal information. While this might sound like some sort of abstract concept, access to information, and especially legal information, are a fundamental source of our ability to be agents as humans. Our framework under which we function as humans involves our day to day knowledge of physics, social interactions, and the like, and the knowledge is necessary for us to move around in a physical world, have friends and business relationships, etc. The traditional world of legal information, however, has failed on even this basic level to provide the public information necessary to allow the public to develop to their full potential as substantively relevant agents in the legal world.

The Legal Information Institutes springing up in the US, Canada, and throughout the rest of the world, are filling the void of public legal information, and also discovering that despite a lack of substantive information, there is a real need for legal substance. Some sites have enormous traffic stats, seeing millions of hits a week. Some see much less. The sites' developers claim, however that site traffic is an almost irrelevant way of measuring public legal information's impact. Something fundamental changes when legal information is offered online.

People become agents in a legal or legislative or judicial realm where they before would have only been relevant through hired services. They can see the reach of the established law in their countries stretching into their lives, and evaluate it on their own, looking up history or international comparisons rather than relying on talk show hysteria to guide them.

And they're only just starting their work.

When the legal information world has collected a body of law and made it public, online, in a truly comprehensive fashion, then a real fundamental shift will have occurred, where the normative binding structures with which we weave our societies together are posted for all to see, without a fee, when legislative debates link to laws passed, and on to agency rules promulgated and enforcement action, then the most basic needs for civic information will be filled, and people, as citizens online, will have the very first thing they need to interact effectively with their government and the rest of their society.

This legal information revolution, as seen in the popular growth of the legal information institute, has a parallel in the recent struggle to release and publish legislative information, legal information's more participatory, electorally relevant older cousin. I'm proud to be working at the Sunlight Foundation on the problems of public access to legislative information, and to have filled in another piece in the larger context in which we operate, whereby people operating largely independently recognize opportunities to improve the world and are empowered by digital technology to do so.

John Wonderlich

Program Director
The Sunlight Foundation
(202) 742-1520 ext. 234

Tom Bruce

May 27, 2008, 7:40:41 AM5/27/08
to Open House Project

On May 27, 1:01 am, "John Wonderlich" <>
> Maybe Tom can say more about how he sees the Legal Information Institute
> movement,

Tom is only too happy to do so. Some would say "over-eager" ;-).

The "movement" is an interesting (and polymorphic) one. And it ain't
all that new. We put Title 17 of the US Code online in Gopher in
1991, and put up the first professional web site outside of high-
energy physics (I think we were Web Site #32, in overall order of
establishment) in 1992 sometime. It's gotten a bit hazy ;-) . The
movement as a whole has gotten a boost in the last year from efforts
by the "copyfighters" -- and especially Carl Malamud at -- to liberate the backfile of caselaw,
particularly Federal caselaw, and put it up.

We (Cornell) were the first LII by a year or two, and every subsequent
LII has taken on a different flavor that responds in different ways to
local needs and circumstances. The Canadians and Australians are
effectively comprehensive national repositories, and have worked on
technical solutions commensurate with that. The South Africans are
working on becoming a true regional resource and backup center for a
number of national operations, and (like us) are concentrating on open
standards development because technical federation of repositories is
politically and practically attractive to them. The folks at ITTIG in
Italy are primarily interested in technical work. And so on.

Most of the LIIs are focussed on caselaw -- we have been unusual in
placing the emphasis that we do on legislation. My own philosophy is
that intellectual access (as opposed to over-the-wire access) to law
rests crucially on statutes and regulations, with caselaw a secondary,
interpretive layer. And in some ways over-the-wire access to
legislation has always been easy compared to dealing with the courts;
people who are elected tend to want to see their works made
manifest ;-) , and both the Feds and the various states moved to this
pretty quickly, at least at a basic level of Web technology. What is
hard is developing the explanatory resources and discovery mechanisms
that really allow people to use what they find. Our WEX project is a
step in that direction, and we're doing things with regulations and e-
rulemaking that should provide some basic technologies that will help
across the board. We've been uniquely positioned to focus on those
questions -- and on questions of standards development and federation
-- because we have no hope of being a comprehensive national resource
and we don't want to be one. My goal is to be an explainer of things
-- something you can do when you have a graduate law school to draw on
-- and a developer of language technologies and technical standards
that knit a bunch of administratively and jurisdictionally disparate
collections together. There is a lot that the open-access-to-law
movement can learn from the digital library experience in the sciences
and we are just now starting to put that together.

Also, there's more to the OA-to-law movement than just the LIIs.
There are citizen groups, professional gadflies like, and even some commercial actors who believe that
free stuff is a good thing. In that respect Tim Stanley and his crew
at Justia have been a big help to everybody; and Ed Walters at
FastCase has been very helpful in making resources available. A lot
of people are starting to realize that while open access to law is in
some respects a very principled matter of giving people the means to
deal with the idea that ignorance of the law is no excuse, it's also
an economic engine of considerable power.

The part of our audience that fascinates me the most is not lawyers or
people who are having an episodic, traumatic personal encounter with
the legal system -- though we can and do serve those people well, I
think. But there's a third group that basically consists of people who
must use law every day without being lawyers, the kind of people who
do legal research as a form of risk management. That's hospital
administrators doing public-benefits law, cops,educators, anybody in
regulated business. The bottom 20 economies in the world are the ones
in which it is hardest to enforce a contract, hire and fire, form a
business entity, access and understand the rules. In the US, there
are upwards of 85,000 dry-cleaning businesses, most of them family-
owned, and over 100 regulations governing the use of a single dry-
cleaning chemical. How do you get your hands around those things?
That's the kind of question we like to ask and answer.

Anyway, enjoy the (short) movies, and if there are questions or I can
otherwise help anybody figure out what it is that we do, I'm happy to

All the best,
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