Veracity, reliability, and legal publishing

I’ve been thinking a bit about all of the efforts by librarians and others to get official verified authenticated (“official”) versions of governmental materials out on the Internet.  There have been a few voices questioning the effort (John Joergensen for one) but I think that my criticism is more radical and comes from a slightly different direction.

Come on, follow me down my rabbit hole.  The first question is why.  Why do we need “official, verified, authenticated” copies?  The easy answer is that we need the “right” stuff.  The easy answer is, as far as it goes, true.  People do rely on these materials to make important decisions.  But, it seems to me that we are ignoring half the equation.  We see the benefit of having legal information “official”: people can get the “right” law, but we don’t seem to look at the other side of the coin.

First, what we have today for most of our law are not “official” versions.  Now, as Joergensen points out, we are using Wexis’ name and reputation as a replacement for “official”.  Librarians propose that in addition to this model, we ask the producers of the information to release an “official” version of their material.  That’s a great dream, but along the way we’ve seen some bumps ranging from the failure of some governments to release much of anything to many governments releasing material but not putting their imprimatur on the material.  It’s been well over a decade and the amount of “official” government material has grown (especially at the Federal level) but not nearly most of the material is deemed “official” today.

By insisting that the legal material on the web be “official” we are adding a large barrier to entry into the market.  What we are saying is that Wexis gets a pass but to get into the market, everyone else needs to wring “official” material out of the government.

In addition, I’m not convinced that we get a better product by insisting on an “official” version.  As I understand it, LII gets and electronic feed from Congress.  By saying that we can’t rely on LII we’re saying that there is a problem with Congress or LII.  (jokes about Congress here, but the law does emanate from them).  Now-a-days with data fed electronically from one place to another the risk of inadvertent mistakes is smaller than when the material was keyed in.

But, some say, what about other less reputable organizations other than LII.  Here I find myself to be in the interesting position of arguing for the free market.  If the reliability (and deep pockets) of Wexis is important, there is a place in the market for you.  If I can get a feed from the court and I let Google crawl my machines, why shouldn’t I?

But raising the barrier to entry, we librarians are hurting (I was going to say cripple but I don’t want to overstate it that much) the development of cheap, free, innovative legal research products.

I think that we are letting the perfect kill the good.  Ideally, we would have “official” versions of all law put online for free in a good XML format so that all sorts of information providers can get a whack at the data.  But, until then, I say let all of the flowers bloom.  Get the data out there.  The fly-by-nights will be gone soon enough.  If the reassurance (and searching) of Wexis is worth what they charge (and if you have the cash) fine, but if you are poor or you think that a data stream from the creator of the information is good enough, you should be able to use that.

In terms of veracity and reliability what we have today is no more than reliance on two big private companies.  I think that until we get them out of the business of telling us what law is true, we won’t get the government into it.

In fact, I’m not convinced that we need anyone in that role, I think that the combination of a working market and the adversarial nature of the law would ensure that all “incorrect” versions are found and eliminated quickly.

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