Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Federal Register Relaunches New & Nicer Site

The good folks at the Federal Register are relaunching their new website, a much nicer interface than the old GPO website. Take a look at http://www.federalregister.gov, to see the new access. The Washington Post has an article covering the relaunch, noting it is part of the Obama administration efforts to make government information more available. The relaunch is scheduled for July 26. The article notes that the relaunch demystifies the arcane searching of the Register by reorganizing the thousands of rules and regulations issued each week into six categories:

science and technology,
business and industry,
and health and public welfare
Apparently, more categories may be added later, with public input. Notices will appear on the home page. Each request for comments will appear on a single web page. And the contents will be in plain language as much as possible. Editors will create headlines or highlights tied to the current debates and hot topics in the Capitol. The website will be modeled on punchy, successful newspapers such as USA Today. (Update from an e-mail: the upgrade marks the "75th anniversary of the Federal Register Act on July 26, 2010, the National Archives Office of the Federal Register and GPO have launched FR 2.0 on http://www.federalregister.gov. The FR 2.0 web site is a beta site at this time, but it may be approved as an official edition in 2011." Tip of the OOTJ hat to Janice Anderson at Georgetown Law and to my colleague, Susan Sweetgall at Suffolk U. Law Library in Boston, who alerted me to the story in the Washington Post).

The tip end of the Post article comments that one day, the Register may appear only online. That, of course, has been the dream and pressure both, to reduce costs and make materials more widely available. Librarians and folks at the National Archives and GPO are aware of the problems involved. The requirements to authenticate the materials produced this way, and to archive it and maintain it in a machine-readable format, even as technology moves along, are not being funded. The Congressmen who think this is the way to cut the budget at the Congressional Printing Office need to be educated. How many of them can read documents stored on a five and a half inch floppy disk? Who now can read materials stored in WordStar, formerly one of the most popular word processing softwares? You have to plan to re-copy digital materials periodically, into new physical formats and new, readable software formats. You have to authenticate the copy that you put out, if it is primary law, that this is the true and final copy of the regulations, and that you have put it into a form that cannot be tampered with unless it leaves a signal. These efforts cost some money. I welcome the new developments, and really look forward to the launch. But I am glad the launch does not yet cut off the print version and the depository library program.

The other thing that I worry about as Congress or other governmental bodies imagine they can cut off paper printing and distribution to public libraries of legal materials, is the fact that not ALL citizens have free access to computers or the Internet. When I publish links to articles in the Boston Globe about debates over closing branches of our public libraries here, I have been disheartened by the number of clueless comments from people who say things like "Why do we need libraries? It's all on the web!" This is so wrong in so many ways! It's not all on the web. And the very people who lack access to the computers and web are the ones who are hurt the most by closing the public libraries, in so many other ways. In a democracy, I strongly believe that every citizen has a right to have free access to see the laws of the land. It is just WRONG for people to have to pay to get access to statutes, regulations, case law. I don't mind for companies to charge when they add extra value to these public legal documents --adding headnotes, extra nice indexes, tables, and other plus value aids. But the basic text is something that we already paid for as citizens by paying our taxes. We paid for our legislature to meet. We paid for our courts, and judges to sit. We paid for the Governor and President, and all the various agencies that write the regulations and rules and adjudicate under them. And by golly, those basic documents belong to all of us.

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