Free Laws for a Free People.

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Legendary public domain advocate Carl Malamud uploaded a photo of a Law.gov sign yesterday, which seems to create a perfect opportunity to talk about what it is he's up to here.

Open law advocates like Malamud argue that legal information in the United States today has a structural problem. Layers of laws and regulations that govern our lives aren't easily knowable. They can be difficult to find, and sometimes expensive to acquire. That's a problem for citizens and entrepreneurs, putting them at a disadvantage to big firms and big business that can afford the time, expertise, and money to navigate the law. At least in theory, it's also destabilizing for government in the long term. People cut off from access to the law are less motivated to see the legitimacy of laws.

Enter Malamud's plan. The idea behind Law.gov is to create a common electronic framework for publishing laws, regulations, and hearing records. An open standard creates the opportunity for every level of authority -- from federal to local -- to participate. But it doesn't force them to. Short-circuited are complaints about jurisdictional sovereignty.

Can a common electronic legal framework work? I don't really know. For one thing, I'm not a lawyer. Neither is Malamud. But the Law.gov plan takes that into account. Yard signs are part of a year-long campaign to workshop the idea with law schools and judges. That Malamud is an "outsider" to that world isn't discouraging to him. His early of study and practice in the late '80s and '90s were spent in the field of Internet standards. From HTTP to multimedia e-mail, when technologists wanted to come up with Internet standards, they got together and hashed them out. In the end, it didn't matter that few of them held any institutional authority. Collaboration and sensibility won the day.

I've talked with Malamud about the Law.gov campaign. He's sure he could convince our president-lawyer Barack Obama of its wisdom if he got the chance. Maybe a yard sign in Lafayette Park is in order.

--Nancy Scola

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