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Rightscon Session: Open Knowledge, go straight to jail?

Blog on learning experiences at RightsCon by Michael Leow

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This brown bag was lead by Danny O'Brien, International Director for Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
The EFF case study shared highlighted the fact that even seemingly innocuous projects involving "Open Knowledge" can be potential legal minefield.
In the US, there is no copyright covering the law and most output by public institution such as NASA (for example the famous image shot of Earth from space) are available unencumbered.

April 25, 1990, Deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope

However, for items such as standards drafted by professional standards organisation (for example the National Electrical Code) there are "copyrights" in place. Lawsuits have been filed because these codes were purchased, scanned and published online without the "approval" of these professional bodies; alleging "copyright infringement". EFF has come to the defence of these parties (see Public.Resource.org case 1). The same attitude is also unfortunately found in Europe where there is a case in Germany related to safety standards 2.
Danny continued by bringing up the case in UK where the Law is licensed under "Crown Copyright"; thus in theory not freely available. Even so; it has been not strictly enforced on projects such as TheyWorkForYou that base their work on the Parliamentary Hansard.
In fact, the Hansard that records down Parliamentary proceedings were originally illegal to be released to the public. In fact, the Hansard is actually named after the printer who and consequently served jail time.

Hansard

To bypass this, some reporters even had to frame the proceedings as fictional stories; with not-so-subtle reference to real parliamentarians.
In summary, laws and compliance affecting citizens should be available freely, be easily searchable, be obtainable with no encumbrance and should be possibly be shared widely. 

Tracking constitutional amendments with source code control / GitHub

This is something I totally agree with and it turned my thoughts to the Laws being published in Malaysia and how it is also opaque; not easily accessible online. As a software developer, it came as a big surprise talking to lawyers working on Malaysian Constitutional Law that there is no easy way to easy trace back all the amendments made to the Federal Constitution. In our daily role developing software we use Software Change Management tools such as git and changes are easily tracked in the open on a public platform such as github.com.

github social coding

You can think of lawmaking as a collaborative effort between lawmakers just as a software application comes from collaborative work within a team of developers; a perfect fit for git + GitHub!
The versions of available Constitution copies (even online PDFs) are only a snapshot with no clear change history; and older versions are not easily obtainable. So I wondered if there was a better way to merge these volumes and volumes of thick tomes into something more easily consumable; especially changes.
Constitution Books

 

This understanding of changes made is especially useful in the context of Malaysia where nearly for 50 years the incumbent government held 2/3 of Parliament and has been liberally modifying the constitution; many times in reaction to a threat / crisis.
The current version of the Federal Constitution, Malaysia - April 2014 can be easily obtained; it has some basic annotation of sections and what Amendments Act was applied.

Federal Constitution

Amendments are published in the Federal Gazette of Malaysia under the Attorney General's Office; but unfortunately only starting from the years 2011. The challenge comes from tracking down older Acts.
The text "An Introduction to the Constitution of Malaysia" by the the well known and respected jurist (Suffian Lord President) is great for its cases and explanations.

Intro to Constitution of Malaysia

To supplement digging through the history of the Constitution and even to see how it differed from the original drafts, the text "Sheridan & Groves: The Constitution of Malaysia" is excellent. Furthermore, it has a very detailed annotations and links to relevant cases.

Constitution Malaysia 2

Using the above resources, we can start the reconstruction in a reverse order by applying the reverse-patch starting with the latest official version. I have scanned the latest version of the Federal Constitution, Malaysia - Part 1 & 2 which I will use as my starting point. Danny suggested I check out a recent work of putting the French Civil Code into Github as a reference to get started.

French Constitution Github

I'll also be checking out other similar projects done for the German Constitution and US Constitution to see if there are additional tooling I can leverage for my use.
 

MyConsti - Malaysian Bar Council Campaign to make Constitution Accessible

 

Finally, for a less legalese introduction to the Malaysian Constitution, I recommend to follow the MyConsti twitter handle @myconsti, attend MyConsti Workshops and download the very cool, colorful MyConsti Mobile App.
Stay tuned for future articles as the project gets going!
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Micheal Leow is volunteering with Sinar Project as The FOI Guy in 2015 while on a year sabbatical from being IT Manager at Carlist.my. He is taking a lead on the Freedom of Information Enactment efforts including deploying the Alaveteli platform, engaging FOIE stakeholders and getting buy-in from Selangor, Penang government. Usually, he have a systems hat on; playing with Ansible and Docker. When putting on dev hat, he mainly in PHP language but learning Go for 2015!

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