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Law via the Internet Conference 2012

I have been retired for one year, but still continue to work on one of my favorite causes – access to legal information as a basic societal right. Many years ago, when I was a documents librarian, the rallying cry of law librarians was “Documents to the People.” Now we have a much less catchy, but more accurate American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) policy statement that “Federal, state and local authorities must ensure government legal information is permanently available to the public at low or no cost, in an easily accessible and professionally maintained environment.” This policy does not preclude print documents, but does reflect the reality of our digital age, where members of the public expect information to be free and fast.

My long-term dedication to these policies and principles led me to volunteer to assist with compiling the AALL National Inventory of Legal Materials. This in turn led me, along with Tina Ching and Emily Feltren, to present our work in “Can We Trust What’s Online? Conclusions from the National Inventory of Legal Materials” at the Law via the Internet 2012 conference held at Cornell Law School last Monday, October 8. LVI2012 celebrated both twenty years of leadership by Tom Bruce and Peter Martin of Cornell’s Legal Information Institute and the subsequent dissemination around the world of such institutes, including the Canadian Legal Information Institute. The “Declaration on Free Access to Law”, which came out of the 2002 LVI conference in Montreal, is a powerful statement of their guiding principles.

This was my first LVI Conference so I was delighted to see such a wide variety of sessions offered. There were two keynote addresses and five tracks, with eight sessions each, held over two days. Both of the keynote addresses were excellent, but I found Clay Shirky’s presentation, “Authority in an Age of Open Access,” to be most provocative. He began by talking about “collaborative construction” and gave several examples of this, including the varied and unpredictable uses of open tagging of fish images posted by the Smithsonian on Flickr. That openness led to new and unexpected uses of data. And what makes this possible is the “cognitive surplus” contributed by many hours of volunteer work – often done by non-experts such as students. Using the example of the unsuccessful Medpedia experiment to devise a better version of Wikipedia’s medical information, Shirky explained that experts don’t see an advantage in writing for non-experts. In order to move toward an annotated body of legal text, he suggested that the next step would be to use crowd-sourced explanations of legal material. He offered the example of legal texts posted on GitHub and some that have been annotated on RapGenius (for an example search on Mayflower Compact.)

Most of the sessions I attended were in Track 3, Free Law and Government Policy, and most of them had a U.S. slant; so my description of the conference may resemble one piece of that proverbial description of the elephant by a group of blind men. This was an international conference with attendees and presenters from around the world, but I chose the sessions that were most aligned with my current interests.

On Monday those sessions included one by Joshua Tauberer on how he set up Govtrack to follow the U.S. Congress in order to provide citizens with useful information about bills and members of Congress. He uses a screenscraping program to get data from Thomas. Another interesting presentation, “Wrangling Court Data on a National Level,” was by Mike Lissener. He set up CourtListener using Juriscraper to report decisions of the U.S. Supreme and Federal Courts while he was a student at the University of California’s Berkeley School of Information.

Tuesday’s sessions included a very informative talk by Frank Wagner, retired Reporter of Decisions at the Supreme Court of the U.S. In his presentation, “Reporting the Law in Perennial Time,” he emphasized the vital importance of insuring that online court opinions be authenticated and preserved forever. Another memorable session featured Sue De Feu and James Lambert from the Isle of Jersey describing the development and content of Jerseylaw , which was one of the Legal Information Institutes showcased in the conference. I was particularly impressed by the fact that this LII was funded half by the government of Jersey and half by the lawyers in the Jersey Bar and includes all laws and judgments. In the same session, Brian Carver, professor at the University of California’s Berkeley School of Information, further described the project done by Mike Lissener in his talk “Putting the Law Online.” Carver focused on an empirical study of the requests for removal of decisions from the database. The results showed that 40 percent were for privacy reasons, 19 percent for safety (usually asylum cases), 17 percent for protection of reputation, 10 percent for damage to career or business, 10 percent for no stated reason and 4 percent because they were angry with the court’s summary. The site’s policy is proactive in crossing out Social Security numbers and observing some safety concerns. They will not remove cases from the database, but will try to block search engine indexing of those cases.

In addition to a stellar lineup of presentations, the conference planners kept us actively engaged and gave attendees enough time in between sessions to network with other attendees. I highly recommend this conference to any and all who have an interest in the Free Access to Law movement. Rumor has it that next year’s conference will be on the English Channel Isle of Jersey. If you attend, you will probably see me there.

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