By Published On: December 26, 20163.7 min read

Editor’s Note 2016/01/03: See discussions on Hacker News and Reddit)

Some people may remember, back in the deep, dark, early days of the Web, using search engines like Lycos and Alta Vista to find web pages. It wasn’t easy: you had to assemble complex search queries, specifying in great detail the words and language you hoped the websites you were looking for would use.

But then Google began drawing information from the links between pages. If many pages about a subject all linked to a page, Google would treat that page as an authority on the subject and present that page higher in search results. Google, of course, converted that insight into near total control over the web search market. Since then, technology companies regularly use linked data for profit. Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix all make heavy use of the links in their data to sell ads, manage shipping logistics, and predict which movies you’ll enjoy.

One enormously consequential set of data that contains links is laws[1]. Laws frequently reference other laws in order to reuse definitions, introduce exceptions, or make it clear that two concepts are meant to work together. Consequential laws tend to get referenced in other laws as their influence spreads throughout the legal system. Experienced lawyers build up detailed mental maps of these links, allowing them to jump immediately to core issues of complex legal problems.

However, most laws can only be searched using the dark-age, Lycos strategy—guess at keywords and hope—and it’s often necessary to pay for even that limited functionality. That is, if it’s possible to search a particular body of law at all; many municipal laws aren’t even online.

This is a problem. It makes information about what the law says far less accessible than other types of information, despite the fact that having accurate legal information, or knowing how to get it, can make the difference between success and disaster.

It’s the difference between searching Google for “weather right now” or “Chinese restaurants”, and “I’m being evicted, what are my rights?”. The first two queries reliably provide accurate information about current weather conditions and nearby Chinese restaurants for most people. But the top result for someone trying to avoid eviction is a website from the UK, even for searches made from the US. At best, this information from another jurisdiction isn’t very helpful. At worst, it might mislead someone on the edge of eviction into a false sense of security if the UK offers greater protections for tenants than wherever they live.

Google results for “I’m being evicted, what are my rights?”

The reasons this problem exists are complex, but they boil down to the fact that laws and the links between them are not being published in ways computers can easily process, making it difficult to extract the valuable information they contain. If the format were computer-friendly, it is easy to imagine leveraging the links between laws to improve search results.

The eviction results above might provide a direct quotation from the laws dealing with eviction in the user’s city, rather than a scattershot listing of general references on the topic. This is a simple example, but it may have tremendous, life-changing consequences for the millions of people who are evicted every year, not to mention the millions more who want to start a small business or pay their taxes and need accurate legal information to do so. The value locked away in the citations that link our body of laws together is enormous.

Many have recognized this problem and have attempted to solve it by converting published laws into computer-friendly formats. Unfortunately, the conversion process is laborious, often introduces errors, and needs to be re-run every time a new law is published, which can sometimes be every day. Scaling this to cover all of the thousands of lawmaking bodies in the United States is infeasible.

What is needed is for lawmaking bodies to begin publishing their laws in computer-friendly formats from the start. At Open Law Library, we work with governments to make this a reality. The Open Law Platform is a suite of software that modernizes the law drafting, codifying, and publishing process so we can finally unlock the hidden potential contained in legal citations.

[1] For the purposes of discussion, “laws” include laws from the legislature, decisions from the judiciary, and regulations from the executive.

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