GitHub: Where Law Meets Technology?

It’s likely that many of you are not familiar with GitHub the collaborative management platform used by many open source software developers.   This is a place where the open source coding community share, review and develop their work.  So if you’re looking for code this is where you go.

However, as Thomas R. Bruce points out in a recent B-Screeds post over on Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, “people  are sticking legislation into GitHub at a furious pace.”  Legislation?  In an open source code hosting site you ask?

One of the strengths of GitHub is its versioning control feature and this it what seems to be drawing the “legal-information smart set” to think about hosting legislation there.  Bruce is skeptical however and notes that for U.S. Federal law “straightforward revision and versioning are not really what happens with most legislation.”

“Simple processes in which a single version of text is successively modified and the modifications absorbed into a series of versions and branches are not quite enough to map the eddies and backwaters of our [legislative] process, in which multiple competing drafts of a bill can exist at the same time, bills can be reintroduced in later sessions, and so on.”

The remainder of Bruce’ post explores why GitHub appears to be such a popular place for legislation these days.  He talks about three areas:  how the process of expressing legislation in GitHub might have an influence on how “the system ‘ought’ to be,” how making legislation available in GitHub puts “ownership of the law where it belongs,” and how it can potentially increases the democratization of the legislative process.

It’s an interesting discussion and he applauds the overall sentiment but he questions the validity of using GitHub as a tool to get law to the people.   He finds it “a little disturbing to think that we might be subconsciously restricting our definition of citizenship to those who can submit pull requests.”  A good point considering the average person doesn’t participate in GitHub unless they have experience as a coder.

Add to this his observation about the perception of work in the legal information environment:  “The biggest problem with legal information has always been that the people who create it have no reason to realize that there is a problem with access, because they themselves have it.”  He concludes that although GitHub is a great management tool for code it may not be the best place to develop legislation.

But some of the post’s commentators disagree.  The overall consensus seems to be that GitHub is starting to become a more non-coder friendly environment and that it does provide a wonderful space for these kinds of collaborative projects.

GitHub: It Ain’t Magic Pixie Dust is a recommended read and a very interesting example of the crossover between law and technology.

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