Carl Malamud: By the people

On Inauguration Day, it’s worth reposting, Carl Malamud’s 2009 Gov 2.0 talk, “By the People” (pdf). Malamud is founder of and

I would like to leave you with three propositions that should be true in a democratic society, challenges our government can and should address today:

First, if a document is to have the force of law, it must be available for all to read. Artificial restrictions on access are not appropriate for the law of the land. The federal judiciary, in particular, must make their data much more broadly available or they will find others owning their databases, claiming authority and authenticity that should emanate directly from the courts themselves. This is a foundational issue, one that goes to the very heart of our system of justice.

Second, if a meeting that is part of the law-making process is to be truly public, in this day and age, that means it must be on the Internet. Today, public means online. When Congress holds hearings, hearings that lead to laws that we must all obey, those hearings must take place in a forum that all may attend and observe. Today, they do not.

If you want to attend a hearing today, you’d best live inside of the Beltway and have the means to hire somebody to guard your place in line.When Congress does webcast, the efforts are half-hearted and of poor quality. Many committees webcast a few select hearings, but then systematically withdraw their archives from the net. Shielding hearings from the public eye reduces the legitimacy of the Congress. Broadcast-quality video from every hearing should be made available on the Internet so our legislative process becomes more visible to all Americans.

Third, the rule of law in our federalist system is a matter that applies to all three branches of the federal government, and also to all 50 states and the local jurisdictions. The principle that primary legal materials should be available to all is a principle that needs to be driven by the leadership of the executive branch and applied to all levels of government.

Our new administration has many noted constitutional scholars — Solicitor General Kagan, Attorney General Holder, President Obama — who must surely understand the importance of making America’s operating system open source. Through litigation, legislation, and executive memorandum, the Administration could and should lead a fundamental reform in how we make our laws available to our citizens, turning the private enclaves of today into the public parks of tomorrow.

The promise of the Internet wave is the promise of an opportunity for more efficient government, for more economic activity, and for a better democracy. Artificial and unjust limits on access to information based on money and power can be abolished from our society’s operating system, giving us at long last a government that truly is of the people, by the people, and for the people.

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