‘Laws are the raw materials of a democracy’

Carl Malamud is on a mission to put as many standards, guidelines, regulations and codes in the public domain. His tryst with India is already off to a start

Carl Malamud (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Joi Ito)

Do you know that the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has a specification for the Indian curry powder? And one for handloom cotton handkerchiefs? This may seem silly and even useless trivia, but perhaps the code of practice for fire safety of buildings for electrical installations will make for a useful document to peruse.

The Bureau has thousands of guidelines and codes, including critical ones aimed at public safety. Unfortunately, most of us are oblivious about these because the BIS does not make these codes and standards publicly available. Thanks to Carl Malamud, the BIS codes, guidelines and standards are now available online. Before he put them up, Malamud had the backing of Sam Pitroda. While Malamud’s made them freely available online, he, along with Indian Kanoon’s Sushant Sinha and civil engineer and transportation specialist Srinivas Kodali, are involved in a legal case in the Delhi High Court for scanning the BIS documents and putting them online.

And it’s not just material from the BIS that the American public domain advocate has put online. He’s also made available the 1,276-item Hind Swaraj Collection - a treasure trove of speeches, documents and video and audio files of Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Bose, and other Indian leaders.

The 59-year-old’s tryst with putting large databases online to make them accessible to the public started with the US Securities and Exchange Bureau’s EDGAR database in 1996. He has since put online the US federal court’s electronic records (PACER), the US state and local public safety codes, global safety codes, California building codes, and many more. In making codes, standards, guidelines and laws available, Malamud seeks to democratise information. He is wont to reiterate the words of Justice Stephen Breyer, an associate justice of the US Supreme Court, that, “If a law isn’t public, it isn’t a law.”

Malamud is now in the process of making available online the gazettes of India. He is equally driven to wrest free scientific knowledge from the clutches of corporate organisations as Reed Elsevier, which publishes a majority of peer-reviewed scientific journals, in order to make them more widely accessible. The founder of non-profit Public.Resource.Org and an Internet radio pioneer, Malamud made a pit stop in Bangalore during a month long visit to India. He spoke about the importance of making information accessible at a student-organised seminar at the National Law School of India University. Excerpts from an interview:

What motivates you to do public domain advocacy?
When I began running my radio station on the Internet in 1993, and did the SEC EDGAR database, I realised that I have a particular skill for putting large government databases online and getting the government to take them over. There are very few lines of work that can have that kind of impact. A lot of what I am doing could've easily been done by somebody else… you take the government books, scan them and put them online. I just happen to be the person doing it. When you put stuff like the Court of Appeals online or when the Federal register got revamped, it has huge impact. A lot of people like it, and some people really like it. It’s immensely gratifying.

He (Gandhi) would’ve been a big fan of the good aspects of the Internet and he would’ve been totally distressed about WhatsApp 

You often stamp your scanned documents with Justice Breyer’s words that a law isn’t a law if it isn’t public. Is there a historic precedence in ancient civilizations for this?
Oh yeah! The Edicts of Ashoka. The Twelve Tables of Rome. I have an essay on my website called the Twelve tables of code, one of which talks about the principle of promulgation of law.

So how did society move away from publicly available laws and codes to these being sold for a price?
It was actually the Canon law, the church laws, that led to the broader publication of law, so lawyers would have access to them. It used to be that you didn't know what the law was until you went to the judge who then figured it out. It was some priest who started writing down all the Canon laws and making it available to fellow priests that began this tradition that led to the Common law being written down and recorded. There was a similar process of councils coming together to decide what the law was and similar traditions in India, Japan, China and other places. Eventually, the law got more and more complicated and (law) companies got involved and just more corporate.

Why is making law accessible significant in democracies?
To me laws are the raw materials of a democracy. And by making those raw materials better by making them accessible to citizens as well as to those on the inside, I think, has a dramatic impact on the functioning of the government. If people know how the government functions, they are much more likely to, you know, rather than throw up their hands and say ‘Ah, the government is hopeless’, instead say, ‘Let's amend this law or let's enforce that law or let's have somebody who obeys the law in government,’ and they are able to do that. Or the people can even say that they don't like the law, and why they don't like it...maybe there's too much regulation or not enough regulation. If you know what the regulations are, then you have the chance of influencing that debate in a much better way. That has a potential dramatic effect on the functioning of a democracy.

You’ve had to face legal hurdles in the pursuit of this path. What are the cases you are involved in?
In India, we have one case, which is coming up on October 9. In the US, the Official Code of Georgia Annotated case is waiting for an opinion from the US Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit. The Standards case has been remanded to the District Court for further consideration. But I try to avoid litigation at all costs. I don't want to be in courts. That's not the way to solve problems. I'll do it if I have to but I'd much rather not. I'd much rather go meet the government and tell them that they ought to do this (put laws in the public domain).

Don't administrations see the value of this work so as not to put hurdles in the way?
It's an interesting issue. The folks who have an empire and do contracting work don't like it. For example, the standards development organisations or the State of Georgia explain in their petition that they need the money (which they get by selling the codes at a cost) because there is effort involved. But people on the ground instantly understand why this is important. I remember this one time I was having a beer at a bar in Georgia, and a woman asked me what had brought me to Georgia. I told her I posted the Official Code of Georgia Annotated on the Internet and we got sued by the state, so we are fighting them. She got me beers the rest of the night. Similarly, I know many chief judges who really like my work and are very supportive and would like to see it go further, but there are only limited things they can do to help.

Looking back, the IRS now publishes all their non-profit returns in a e-file format. It took 10 years and a lawsuit, but they've taken it over. The SEC (EDGAR database) is up and running. The Federal Register is totally open and is running on an open-source software now. In India, the (BIS) standards are still online. The Hind Swaraj Collection is immensely popular. I have very good relations with the Sabarmati Ashram even after publishing the Collected Works of Gandhiji before they (the Ashram) were ready.

You've spoken about being inspired by MK Gandhi. What do you find most impressive about his journey?
His early days and life in South Africa. Am most impressed with his activities as a publisher and as a litigant/community organiser in South Africa. And also his activities as a publisher and as a disseminator of information. He spent an intense amount of time doing that… he would've been on Twitter (if alive) today! He would've been a big fan of the good aspects of the Internet and he would've been totally distressed about WhatsApp and the child abduction-related lynchings, he would've been aghast.

Other than litigation, what is the biggest challenge you face in the pursuit of public domain advocacy?
Raising money for an NGO is always a pain in the neck. Every NGO faces this problem. The last two years were really tough. I had to finance myself for six months each year - work without salary. I was at a point where if I didn't receive money, I was going to shut it down and do something else. Am lucky now though - I’ve got a very nice grant from the Arcadia Foundation, so am solvent for this year and the next two years.

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