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Legal Code In a Version Control System?

Soulskill posted more than 4 years ago | from the they-might-actually-know-what-they're-voting-on dept.

Government 334

coldmist writes "Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.) is on the Senate Finance Committee, which just finished work on the health care bill. The committee recently rejected an amendment which would have required them to post the legislation for public viewing for 72 hours before it went to final vote. Several senators felt that the actual legal code would be too cryptic and complicated to be useful. Carper himself said, 'I don't expect to actually read the legislative language because reading the legislative language is among the more confusing things I've ever read in my life.' So, why don't they put it in SVN (or some similar version control system) where people can tkdiff the changes (i.e. new legislation is in a branch) or output a patchset? If a bill is passed, it's merged into the trunk. It just seems so logical to me, yet I can't find any mention of doing this on the web. What do you think?"

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334 comments

Too early yet (2, Insightful)

EsbenMoseHansen (731150) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625065)

The idea is fine and good, but the system probably runs too far behind everything else to take this up for some years to come.

Afro-American Racism Against Whites and Asians (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29625213)

During the election, about 95% of African-Americans voted for Barack Hussein Obama due solely to the color of his skin. See the exit-polling data [cnn.com] by CNN.

Note the voting pattern of Hispanics, Asian-Americans, etc. These non-Black minorities serve as a measurement of African-American racism against Whites (and other non-Black folks). Neither Barack Hussein Obama nor John McCain is Hispanic or Asian. So, Hispanics and Asian-Americans used only non-racial criteria in selecting a candidate and, hence, serve as the reference by which we detect a racist voting pattern. Only about 65% of Hispanics and Asian-Americans supported Obama. In other words, a maximum of 65% support by any ethnic or racial group for either McCain or Obama is not racist and, hence, is acceptable. (A maximum of 65% for McCain is okay. So, European-American support at 55% for McCain is well below this threshold and, hence, is not racist.)

If African-Americans were not racist, then at most 65% of them would have supported Obama. At that level of support, McCain would have won the presidential race.

At this point, African-American supremacists (and apologists) claim that African-Americans voted for Obama because he (1) is a member of the Democratic party and (2) supports its ideals. That claim is an outright lie. Look at the exit-polling data [cnn.com] for the Democratic primaries. Consider the case of North Carolina. Again, about 95% of African-Americans voted for him and against Hillary Clinton. Both Clinton and Obama are Democrats, and their official political positions on the campaign trail were nearly identical. Yet, 95% of African-Americans voted for Obama and against Hillary Clinton. Why? African-Americans supported Obama due solely to the color of his skin.

Here is the bottom line. Barack Hussein Obama does not represent mainstream America. He won the election due to the racist voting pattern exhibited by African-Americans.

African-Americans have established that expressing "racial pride" by voting on the basis of skin color is 100% acceptable. Neither the "Wall Street Journal" nor the "New York Times" complained about this racist behavior. Therefore, in future elections, please feel free to express your racial pride by voting on the basis of skin color. Feel free to vote for the non-Black candidates and against the Black candidates if you are not African-American. You need not defend your actions in any way. Voting on the basis of skin color is quite acceptable by today's moral standard.

Re:Too early yet (2, Insightful)

camperdave (969942) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625437)

The idea is fine and good, which is why it is unlikely to be implemented. After all, if you can filter changes and search by text, then how are you going to hide riders [wikipedia.org] in your bills.

Re:Too early yet (1)

EsbenMoseHansen (731150) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625485)

The idea is fine and good, which is why it is unlikely to be implemented. After all, if you can filter changes and search by text, then how are you going to hide riders [wikipedia.org] in your bills.

You have the politicians you vote for, you know, at least in the part of the world with direct elections. I don't believe most politicians are evil or subversive, though some of course are.

But have you ever tried to convince your colleagues to do something a better way? It is not always easy (my current colleagues are of course *brilliant* and always a step ahead /waves/)

Re:Too early yet (2, Interesting)

Mia'cova (691309) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625491)

I've worked on some large technical documents (several hundred pages) in this way. The document is built up from many smaller chunks which are stored in a version control system. Then to get the entire thing you need to 'build' it. It's actually a major pain in the ass because there simply aren't too many good ways to do this. Whenever anything breaks it's a pain in the ass for everyone.

When comparing this to an enterprise-level document management system, I don't see any advantages at present. The document management systems can include version control and diffing with file-format specific implementations. You wouldn't want to do a binary diff on a word doc for example. It's also usually smarter for these kinds of tasks workflow wise. I'm sure everyone working on these bills have access to some kind of document management system. They're not just passing around USB keys and checking their gmail. The systems they're using are probably perfectly suited for what's being done.

I expect better systems to evolve but simply trying to drop something in CVS has a lot of hidden costs.

Re:Too early yet (1)

EsbenMoseHansen (731150) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625539)

I've worked on some large technical documents (several hundred pages) in this way. The document is built up from many smaller chunks which are stored in a version control system. Then to get the entire thing you need to 'build' it. It's actually a major pain in the ass because there simply aren't too many good ways to do this. Whenever anything breaks it's a pain in the ass for everyone.

When comparing this to an enterprise-level document management system, I don't see any advantages at present. The document management systems can include version control and diffing with file-format specific implementations. You wouldn't want to do a binary diff on a word doc for example. It's also usually smarter for these kinds of tasks workflow wise. I'm sure everyone working on these bills have access to some kind of document management system. They're not just passing around USB keys and checking their gmail. The systems they're using are probably perfectly suited for what's being done.

Legal documents appears to be plain text, actually, perhaps with some simple headings.

I expect better systems to evolve but simply trying to drop something in CVS has a lot of hidden costs.

CVS? Are you pulling my tail? SVN is antiquated enough without mentioning CVS!

Re:Too early yet (3, Insightful)

jmccay (70985) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625543)

You are kind of missing the point. Congress doesn't want us to know what the bills say, and they don't want to really know what the bill says. If they don't actually read the bill, they have plausible deniability. If you can't read the bill, then they can say you don't know what you're talking about, and if that doesn't work, they'll just call you a racist for disagreeing. Take health care for instance. What Obama and the Democrats have been saying the bill does is not what the actual bill says. They are playing a magician; they want you to watch what there right hand (what they say) is doing while the left hand (what the bill says) is doing something else. Didn't you have a problem when Obama broke his promise that we'd be able to view bills a week before they are passed (see here [politifact.com])? Aren't you bothered that most in Congress don't read the bill before they sign it, and then try to tell you what it actually does? They are trying to reform health care in America without actually reading the whole bill! Ask your local Representative if they read the bill before they passed it back in August. Anything that expedites the process of you being able to read what is being passed will not be done. This is business as usual.

If the legal code is too confusing (5, Insightful)

selven (1556643) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625083)

CHANGE THE LAW. Keeping the bible in Latin worked only for the priests and keeping the law in legal speak is working only for the lawyers.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (3, Interesting)

Idiomatick (976696) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625133)

The goal isn't to make the law confusing (most of the time), the goal is to take power away from judges. If we wrote things to be not confusing they'd be simple. And while simple may seem nice it would mean handing control of the more complicated issues to the judges. That or you end up with huge miscarriages of justice.

I would rather deal with complicated texts and have more power in the hands of the voters (theoretically) than which ever judge you happen to get. In small towns judges would have more power than anyone.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (4, Insightful)

jimicus (737525) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625215)

So instead what winds up happening is the men and women voting for the law don't understand the law themselves.

It gets voted in and suddenly there's a bunch of consequences which they never envisioned because the law gets implemented more-or-less as written and if that's radically different to what was intended - tough.

This has already happened a few times in the UK with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act - local councils were given a bunch of snooping powers (which, we assume, were originally intended to help them weed out those who cheat council-administered benefits) are using them to track down the person who insists on putting paper in their glass recycling box.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (1)

tmk (712144) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625367)

So instead what winds up happening is the men and women voting for the law don't understand the law themselves.

That is an issue: Law makers habe to understand the decisions they are making. Of course not everybody has the knowledge to evaluate evry single consequence of every law, but the representatives have to keep the control.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (1)

Idiomatick (976696) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625425)

Nope, people vote for parties who have people in them who hire people that hire people that make laws. Still, the other way sucks too.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29625223)

I would rather deal with complicated texts and have more power in the hands of the voters (theoretically) than which ever judge you happen to get. In small towns judges would have more power than anyone.

That only works if the laws are kept simple enough that voters can control them. But if they are so complicated that voters can't even understand them (or even read hundreds of pages of legalese every time a new law relevant to them is passed), it won't work.

Even representative democracy doesn't help here as most politicians don't read through all the laws they sign either. In the current system each politician may have hundreds or thousands of pages of text delivered to him daily (not only the legal text but all the expert statements, etc. etc.), often about subjects they aren't very familiar with (Such as IT) and it can't be expected that they read through all of that text and manage to catch all the minor loopholes.

Then they can hire assistants to help them with that but it has a lot of problems too. (What laws are passed is no longer in the hands of the politicians but whether their assistants thought that some loophole was worth mentioning, if they even find it)

IANAL but I know several people who study law. They tell me horror stories about arguing for hours if it should be considered drunk driving when a drunk person accidentally switches off the breaks when he is just taking something from the car. I would prefer simple laws and judges' ability to judge over this kind of system.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (1)

Idiomatick (976696) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625493)

Your last line was on my side :/ ... Writing down all these stupid situations and odd little complexities; While it may complicate the law and make lawyers necessary... It is better than having to argue that stuff in the court room.

A politician having a moderate chance to understand a law he is passing is pretty bad I admit. But is using pure precedents and handing all the law making power over to judges better in any way? Just sounds like a way to make the courts more expensive (somehow amazing).

You're an idealist. (3, Insightful)

reiisi (1211052) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625247)

The complexities take power away from judges, I suppose, but then they put the power in the hands of the lawyers, who have to interpret the laws for the judges.

I prefer keeping the law simple and being able to recall judges who get out of control.

Injustices are going to happen anyway, the only way to deal with that is to learn rudimentary social skills, so you can get others to help you correct them. (Or am I being unreasonably idealistic in asking that?)

Re:You're an idealist. (1)

Idiomatick (976696) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625481)

The idea is that in debate the two lawyers fighting for each side eventually the law will come through. If it were one lawyer interpreting the law to the judge and the judge making a decision that would be terrible. Given two very good lawyers they may be able to dig up all kinds of weird laws and positions supporting their side. But hopefully because of this a judge will get a very full picture before making a decision.

I think a direction we should proceed should be to codify and restructure law. At the moment law is spread out amongst thousands of books with no real organization. There are whole law libraries and precedents abound. If this huge mass of info could be better organized it would be more valuable and take power from the lawyers.

And yeah you are totally being idealistic, not that I'm not. I'm a firm believer in the word of law and things written down and I have NO FAITH in people what so ever which colours where I am idealistic compared to you.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (2, Informative)

Jurily (900488) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625287)

CHANGE THE LAW. Keeping the bible in Latin worked only for the priests and keeping the law in legal speak is working only for the lawyers.

Sigh. Another round of religion-bashing.

Keeping the bible in Latin worked because 1) Latin was the language of literacy throughout Europe, much like English is the language of commerce and international communication today worldwide; 2) none of the peasants could read anyway; 3) back then, it took years of work to copy a book, preserving all the artwork by hand - you might as well made sure everyone could read it when you're done; 4) most of the languages weren't exactly ready for these kinds of translations.

To rephrase your argument: Keeping the API in English worked only for the programmers.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (4, Insightful)

selven (1556643) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625385)

That's not the point. The bible was also read in Latin, after which the priest would helpfully interpret the Latin to the peasants in whatever way he wanted.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (3, Insightful)

langelgjm (860756) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625737)

Nowadays, of course, everyone helpfully interprets the Bible to mean whatever they want it to, which is so much better.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (2, Informative)

turing_m (1030530) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625733)

Keeping the bible in Latin worked because...

Methinks you doth protest too much. Surely keeping the bible in a language that only appointed priests could understand and have access to learning worked to the benefit of those priests and the people who had influence in appointing them (King, and Pope). The breaking up of this monopoly was a direct result of the invention of the printing press - which allowed plain English/German/Dutch/French translations to be mass produced for the first time. This caused bloody wars all over Europe. http://www.williamtyndale.com/0biblehistory.htm [williamtyndale.com]

In fact, the wars to bring about the monopoly in the first place under Charles the Great were pretty bloody also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_of_Verden [wikipedia.org]

That being said, I'm not really convinced by the grandparent. I am not a lawyer but I do know that modern civilization with large populations is a very complicated thing. I don't believe it can run without a legal system that can cope with complex situations and come up with a ruling that at least largely works (or keeps some semblance of order). The language needs to be exact so that it can be interpreted accurately, hence, legalese has evolved. It is not comprehensible to the average Joe. However, because it is exact, a trained lawyer can interpret it and give a legal opinion that will probably be correct. A smart person usually has a good idea of right and wrong working through legalese - it just takes a long time. Even most libertarians are not so removed from Earth as to suggest that society can do away with courts (or military, or police). Whatever would be in place of the rules to stop people doing things that cause other people harm (usually having some sort of market basis) need to be exact enough.

The same is true of software. There is no silver bullet that will enable people with average joe levels of intelligence to code software. The language used needs to be precise; there is no way around it. To get to the point where we can type in English "construct me a game where I run around and shoot things and have lots of fun" and have the computer pop out the next Crysis after compiling for a bit... for that we need strong AI. Until then we have an array of cryptic English-based languages, unintelligible to the layman. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Silver_Bullet [wikipedia.org]

Life is complex (3, Insightful)

tmk (712144) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625315)

A few thousand people in the whole world can really understand the source code of the linux kernel. Why would Linus make it so complicated? Is this "openness" just another prank? No, some things are complex. To make laws is a highly complex issue, Of course, there are many problems with the processes of law making - but just simplyfying the language would not do any good.

Re:Life is complex (4, Insightful)

jonbryce (703250) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625455)

You don't need to understand the linux kernel source to do some shopping in Konqueror. The kernel developers and GCC understand it perfectly, and that's what matters.

All of use are supposed to understand what the law says. Ignorance is not an excuse. But if Supreme Court judges can't even agree on what the law means, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Re:Life is complex (1)

tmk (712144) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625669)

I guess the kernel source code and 100 pages bills are the same in this aspect. You don't need to know every little regulation in every field and in every part of the process. You have elected representatives who have to deal with complex legal issues. The 1000 pages are simply not relevant to you, but you should if you get health coverage and who has to pay for it. It is relevant for you that there is no "death panel". It is relevant for you if you can go to a doctor of your choice.

Re:Life is complex (1)

Zsub (1365549) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625717)

Keeping your analogy: it's not like the kernel devs agree all the time, now do they?

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (2, Insightful)

Jacques Chester (151652) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625339)

Your analogy is flawed. Asking lawyers to drop legalese is like asking programmers to drop programming languages.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (1)

selven (1556643) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625389)

We need programmers. We don't need lawyers.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (2, Insightful)

Jacques Chester (151652) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625489)

Look, I gave up a law degree to do computer science. But the fact is that if aliens abducted lawyers and programmers, the lawyers would be jauntily farewelled and the programmers forgotten.

But once the bank equipment stops being upgraded, people won't be saying "I wish we still had programmers". They'd be wishing they still had lawyers so they could work out how to get their money back without having to shoot people.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (1)

digitig (1056110) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625597)

Except that without the programmers they won't know how much, if anything, they are owed.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29625689)

That's easy. You take your last bankstatement to the bank and ask for your money nicely and politely. You could point out that it was produced by them and they therefor think it's accurate. If they don't give you your money the bankers are in fact dishonarable scoundrels and thieves. Then you shoot them.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (4, Insightful)

agurk (193950) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625501)

If programming languages was written in plain words we wouldn't need programmers, but the secret order of computer programmers refuse to do it that way - simple programming is not possible they claim. What they really are afraid of is the fact that normal humans (non programmers) could just diff the text to look for bugs and even make their own software.

PS! A lot of the people here at slashdot.org are members of this secret order so they will probably mod me down and try to shut me up - BUT justice will prevail.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (1)

foobsr (693224) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625775)

If programming languages was written in plain words we wouldn't need programmers

Disagree strongly — e.g. imagine clarifying how a robot mimics human gait.

CC.

Re:If the legal code is too confusing (1)

obarthelemy (160321) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625621)

That's very true.

Also, if we see laws as a bunch of code, I'm amazed there's zero maintenance done on them. We're still stuck with 200+ years old texts, whose language is so outdated as to be barely comprehensible.

Seems consistent with every issue (4, Interesting)

cjfs (1253208) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625089)

If you can't convince them, confuse them. -- Harry Truman

Re:Seems consistent with every issue (1)

tmk (712144) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625295)

E.g. with "death panels"?

Re:Seems consistent with every issue (2, Insightful)

cjfs (1253208) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625453)

E.g. with "death panels"?

Yes, and about every other publicized issue in the U.S. over the last 10+ years.

It's the whole "it doesn't have to be right, just repeat it enough until it sounds plausible" mentality. When you have a population that is so easily manipulated, you end up with critical issues being decided based purely on which terminology gets the most publicity.

Re:Seems consistent with every issue (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29625395)

That's exactly what's happening. Informed voters is the last thing politicians want.

The Songs of Distant Earth (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29625095)

Cue Jefferson Mark 3 Constitution (a.k.a. "utopia in two megabytes")...

Lack of training/intelligence? (1)

DeadDecoy (877617) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625121)

The people who are in control of passing and managing such legal documents are probably not aware of version control systems; much less on how to even use them. Even if they were told of such a system, they'd probably need to be brow-beaten into trying it out or adopting it before it would actually become used in the real world environment (hint: maybe we need to drown them in suggestion letters?). Think of how hard it is to even get a Windows user to check out Linux or Mac. It'd probably be much harder introducing new technology to some 60+yo senators. On a side note, maybe someone on slashdot could setup a site called Law-Hub, like git-hub but for legal documents? Hopefully you won't get sued from some asinine reason like copyright infringement ><

Re:Lack of training/intelligence? (2, Insightful)

jimicus (737525) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625231)

Or, if you want to think the worst - perhaps those drafting the laws (frequently not those voting for them) don't want it to be easy to tell what changes a given law will introduce.

Re:Lack of training/intelligence? (4, Insightful)

palegray.net (1195047) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625249)

I think you missed the bigger issue:

... don't expect to actually read the legislative language ...

If United States Senators can't be bothered to read and comprehend the legislation they're voting on, then:

(1) why are they elected to posts that, as the most basic of job requirements, requires the ability to do so, and

(2) why haven't they been removed from office for complete and utter failure to serve the American people?

That's right, folks... your elected officials are attempting to pass legislation that will have massive consequences for our generation and several more to come, without having actually read the material they're about to vote on. Here's the best part: this is nonthing new. It's been the status quo for a huge chunk of Washington's electoral finest for longer than I've been alive. Outstanding work!

Re:Lack of training/intelligence? (3, Informative)

jonbryce (703250) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625465)

Lawyers generally use MS Word's version control system when negotiating new contracts. It may not be as good as CVS or Subversion, but it is at least something.

Well, we knew it all along... (1)

caladine (1290184) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625125)

Several senators felt that the actual legal code would be too cryptic and complicated to be useful. Carper himself said, 'I don't expect to actually read the legislative language because reading the legislative language is among the more confusing things I've ever read in my life.'

Anyone willing to bet that most of them haven't even read the freaking bill either? Certainly sounds like Carper isn't reading them!

Re:Well, we knew it all along... (3, Interesting)

cetialphav (246516) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625693)

Have you seen the size of these bills? That size and the complexity of the language means that there is no way any congress person could have read the bill. Even the author of the bill, has probably not read the complete text.

That is not as big a problem as it sounds, though. Each congress person and the committees have staffers whose job it is to do just this type of thing. They have teams of technical experts (analogous to software developers) who understand the code of the law. This is one reason that policy debates often focus on reports from all sorts of obscure government agencies. You need highly technical experts to comb through this stuff and make sense of it. The policy debates get down to which set of experts you believe and trust.

I think a lot of us think of congress people as coders who are working on the law, but they are really more like vice presidents directing teams of coders in broad policy directions. In that sense, it is okay (and even preferable) that they not micromanage too much.

Niger's proposal (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29625127)

perhaps it's time to rethink Gary G. Niger's proposal that a law is only valid if and only if a mathematician can understand and prove that it's non-contradictionary.
I think this would help a lot.

The legislative language isn't that important... (2, Informative)

Trickster Paean (185378) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625137)

Generally, if you want to learn the content of a bill, you can read the plain language version that's passed out of committee. That's the version that matters, that's the version that the members of Congress read, and that's the version that's controlling. The version of the bill that's translated is the legislation that is passed on. If that does not match up with the intent from the committee, then it is corrected to match the plain language version.

And as for whether some sort of tkdiff makes sense, maybe it does, but really for only a select few people who actually are writing and or editing the bills. Of course, if there was something free and open to the public, that wouldn't be a bad thing either. But generally, there's just not a whole lot of demand.

Re:The legislative language isn't that important.. (1)

GrantRobertson (973370) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625355)

you can read the plain language version that's passed out of committee. That's the version that matters, that's the version that the members of Congress read, and that's the version that's controlling. The version of the bill that's translated is the legislation that is passed on. If that does not match up with the intent from the committee, then it is corrected to match the plain language version.

Could you please give a reference to this information. I would like to be able to use this to explain why there are so many quotes about "not reading the bill" going around lately. However, just saying. "Someone on Slashdot who calls themselves 'Trickster' said it." is not going to cut it.

Thanks

Re:The legislative language isn't that important.. (5, Insightful)

massysett (910130) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625783)

"Plain language version"? "Corrected"? "Translated"? "Legislation that is passed on"? What on earth are you talking about? This is horrifyingly wrong. There is no "plain language version". Legislation is not "translated". Committees report a bill with specific language; though it may be amended later (generally on the floor, or in conference) there is no "correction".

And "The legislative language isn't that important"? That is so amazingly, completely, and gravely wrong that I have no idea where to start debunking it.

Yes, I AM a lawyer and I work on issues involving legislation every single day, so I fully expect I will get modded down. The perils of crowdsourcing.

Re:The legislative language isn't that important.. (1)

foobsr (693224) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625805)

If that does not match up with the intent from the committee, then it is corrected to match the plain language version.

Like in the case of the law [slashdot.org] that assigns 'the right to personal privacy' to corporations ... err

CC.

Needs disipline (4, Interesting)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625139)

I have built a version controlled document management system around mercurial [selenic.com] for my wife's architectural practice. I have found it very difficult to convince users to follow the conventions we use for software. They are too used to putting version and project information in file names. It means nothing for them to rename a file from a.dxf to a_new.dxf and commit it.

The formal structure of software tends to keep this behaviour in check. The environment we are talking about here may be formal and controlled enough for this to work, but it is going to take training and enforcement to get it to work.

Re:Needs disipline (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29625171)

Laws follow a very structured and planned storage schema, otherwise lawyers and judges would not be able to look them up. It just happens to have been devised a long time before computers existed. It is not the same thing we are talking about here as forcing a group of office workers to adopt a rigid wordprocessor.

And there are computerized systems already being used in this domain, eg. to store and match similar sentences when writing compendiums for law magazines...

Lawyers (1)

zwei2stein (782480) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625145)

... and people who use them to wage legal wars.

Easy to understand laws are bane of them. Future without precedent digging nightmare.

So many high paying jobs lost, so many ordinary people being able to sleep well ... not good.

Mediawiki ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29625179)

It is surely Mediawiki and other wiki's that are designed for this task ? Code revision systems are by their very nature designed for code not text.

Re:Mediawiki ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29625199)

designed for code not text

Um, what exactly is the difference? Nothing, hell, these days you can mix both ASCII, Unicode and binary in a repo.

Re:Mediawiki ? (1)

palegray.net (1195047) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625319)

You're sorely lacking in understanding of what revision control systems do. Code is text. As a matter of fact, the "source tree" for the entire site in my sig is stored in a git repository as RST files.

Re:Mediawiki ? (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625505)

I am guessing that legal code in text would need to have some kind of mark-up. Vanilla version control systems won't understand that so they will present diffs and merges as being more complex than they need to be. One advantage of wikis is that their version control systems usually understand the markup language so changes are easier to understand.

Re:Mediawiki ? (1)

palegray.net (1195047) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625549)

What you're describing requires implementing a layer to do the interpretation required. Existing wikis do not do this, and if you're going to write a management layer to interpret the diffs, you might as well be storing them in git for subsequent presentation through [insert any front end here]. The VCS solves a heck of a lot of the underlying issues, giving you the ability to just focus on the mechanics of interpreting the results.

Git? (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29625187)

In a perfect world, where politicians and citizens wouldn't be digitally illiterate, a VCS woud be ideal.

Git could be used, in the sense of direct democracy and participation: anybody could propose changes, let them be voted and propagated up the hierarchy, and get them approved as the official laws of the state. Laws would even carry the full history of amendments (commits) and the names of the people who actually wrote them. /me dreams

Asking way too much of the lawyers. (4, Insightful)

reiisi (1211052) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625217)

As PJ (over at Groklaw) likes to say, law is squishy.

Source code and law look a lot alike, but we have to remember that law is squishy.

We also should remember that lawyers are often seeking for an advantage for their clients (or constituents). This seeking for advantage runs counter to the work patterns of many of us who deal with free/open source stuff, but it is quite common in the legal world.

It would be a great tool for legislators who want the law to make sense, but such are too rare. The others would quickly find ways to pervert the tools.

What would you gain? (1)

tmk (712144) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625251)

I don't get your point. Confusing legal language does not get more usefull or logical when you put them in SVN. Of cource: SVN - or probably another solution better suited for the task - could help to track changes over time - but this not the problem of the health care reform bills, is it?

Re:What would you gain? (1)

Starlon (1492461) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625375)

When you're reading the bill you're basically required to cross reference other amendments in law. This is the whole reason why lawmakers generally refuse to read bills. With some sort of revision control, one could just roll back the history to see what changed, and even more important, see what hasn't changed that relates to the proposed legislation.

Personally I think any current revision system would have to be modified in a large part to accommodate the legislature system, but it's quite doable, and would fix a large problem that has gone on for too long -- that lawmakers don't read the bills.

Re:What would you gain? (1)

tmk (712144) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625407)

I'm not a citizen in the US, but in many countries bills ake allready like patches.

If you want to change the law "Everybody must pay one dollar" to "Everybody must pay two dollars" you will not pass the whole law again, you will pass another bill that says that "one dollar" is replaces by "two dollars".

This way, the bills get huge - but the actual law is far less voluminous.

Re:What would you gain? (1)

Starlon (1492461) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625439)

Well, I'm not an expert. It may work that way here. What you describe resembles what legislation I've read.

Formatting to minimize diff size is a huge problem (1, Insightful)

Antique Geekmeister (740220) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625283)

One big problem is that the content would need to be in a consistent format that minimizes the size of diffs, or it will blowup immediately. Line breaks, indentation, page breaks, and other artifacts of formatting need to be ignored to make it intelligible. I'm not aware of any version control system that does this. Is anyone else?

Use Tex (1)

Alain Williams (2972) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625329)

It depends on what is contained in the version control system. I agree that diffing the output would be bad, as would if the source format was something like MS Word. If the source was something like Tex or Latex then the differences would be quite sensible and easy to understand.

More importantly (4, Funny)

4D6963 (933028) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625301)

Legal code these days is the equivalent of assembly language, it's complicated but it describes on a low-level what has to be done. While it's fine and dandy, the problem these days is that too much code is produced. Hence I propose that we make a GCC-Legalese or LLVM-Legalese fork so that we can -Os legislation. Better yet, we could simply write law in a higher level language, intent, and the compiler's intent preprocessor would turn that into faithful lower level code.

I also propose that we start forking Valgrind as to automatically find legal loopholes, conflicts and grey areas before a law is passed. Finally I think we should rewrite common law in Objective-Law++ so we can benefit from the many advantages offered by objection-oriented law over procedural law. Any thoughts on Convict Collection?

Re:More importantly (1)

4D6963 (933028) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625343)

Alternatively we could write it in Lawa instead so we could have the law interpreted in real-time in a virtual legal system. It might be a less efficient legal system but it would have the advantage of being completely portable to any other country without modifications, given a compatible virtual legal system. Should work quite well, I'll try writing a Habeas Corpus in Lawa later today and see how that works.

Re:More importantly (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29625747)

IANAH.. wait I am. Anyway, the problem is when all these high level law monkeys do not understand the machine law. There are still a bunch of lawyers out there that had to punch in their homework in octals at lawschool. They will find exploits in the law and will leave the judges with an overflow of work.

legal 'diffs' exist in switzerland (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29625325)

when swiss citizens vote if they want to change a law or not (switzerland has a direct democracy) they get a brochure with a summary of the proposal, questions and answers of both sides (yes because.. no don't, because..) a diff of what (raw) legal text would be added/deleted/exchanged to which law and a recommendation of the parliament and the government representatives. the recommendation sucks because it clearly biases people that don't have a clue and just want to have it done in 5 minutes. and the diffs are usually ignored by most people because it's raw undigestible legal text. not perfect but clearly the way to go..

The law is a kind of code, but ... (4, Interesting)

Jacques Chester (151652) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625327)

1. There's an enormous amount of existing code. Look at how much Slashdot talks about COBOL, which is around 50 years old. In common law countries (eg Britain, the USA and Australia), the law has code nearly a millennium old, written in a variety of languages.

2. Corner cases. There are lots of these. Much like software, they are usually discovered in "maintenance mode"; ie after the law is passed. As time goes on, legal draftsmen begin to include lots of standard boilerplate, which will only rarely actually be applied.

3. Legal draftsmen. Never heard of these? Who do you think actually sits down and writes the law? It's not the politicians. They give drafting instructions, which are translated into legalese.

Expecting politicians to read and comprehend legalese is a bit like expecting businessmen to read and comprehend assembler. It will never, ever happen. The idea of "plain english" law is a lot like "automatic programming". A total pipedream that will never happen.

The law is a semi-structured language. You can think of it as a distributed rule system created by a mix of engineered modules (Acts of Congress / Parliament) and reverse engineering.

The reverse engineered parts are case law. Lawyers feed in black-box test cases, then carefully record what the CPU (the judges) output. Over time they map out what the law "is". The reason legalese repeats the same phrases over and over again is because they have been proved, in court, to have specific and reliable semantics. "It ain't broke", so to speak.

I personally think there's enormous scope for borrowing software engineering practice and tools for legal drafting, but it's no panacea. I even used to think that we could treat legalese as a kind of assembler and develop a higher level language that "compiles down" to it. [clubtroppo.com.au] But it doesn't solve the problem, just moves it around.

Laws are flawed and problematic because they deal with humans. Humans who are complex and motivated and intelligent. No purely rule-based system will ever completely tame human ingenuity, just as no code will ever fully describe all subject domains.

Disclaimer: I used to be a law student, until I came to my senses.

Good thought --- but we need to define the problem (1)

cb0 (1649109) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625345)

I certainly agree that ordinary citizens should be able to understand the laws that the morons in Congress write, in the form that the laws will be applied (ie by the courts).

This "legal versus conceptual language" business is a problem which technology could certainly help solve. I think there have already been zillions spent on "legislation tracking systems" for congress ... probably by mainframe types.

Half the readers on this list munge (hyper)text for a living, and could probably improve the pror solutions a ton.

But before we decide what mechanism should be used, we need to understand what the problem is. I've appended a totally random sample of an enacted bill (ie, one that was signed by the Prez). This is what "legal language" actually looks like...

H.R.4685 One Hundred Seventh Congress of the United States of America AT THE SECOND SESSION Begun and held at the City of Washington on Wednesday, the twenty-third day of January, two thousand and two

An Act To amend title 31, United States Code, to expand the types of Federal agencies that are required to prepare audited financial statements.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE. This Act may be cited as the `Accountability of Tax Dollars Act of 2002'.

SEC. 2. AMENDMENTS RELATING TO AUDITING REQUIREMENT FOR FEDERAL AGENCY FINANCIAL STATEMENTS.

(a) IN GENERAL- Section 3515 of title 31, United States Code, is amended--

(1) in subsection (a)-- (A) by striking `Not later' and inserting `(1) Except as provided in subsection (e), not later'; (B) by striking `each executive agency identified in section 901(b) of this title' and inserting `each covered executive agency'; and (C) by striking `1997' and inserting `2003'; (2) in subsection (b) by striking `an executive agency' and inserting `a covered executive agency'; (3) in subsections (c) and (d) by striking `executive agencies' each place it appears and inserting `covered executive agencies'; and

(4) by adding at the end the following:

(e)(1) The Director of the Office of Management and Budget may exempt a covered executive agency, except an agency described in section 901(b), from the requirements of this section with respect to a fiscal year if--

(A) the total amount of budget authority available to the agency for the fiscal year does not exceed $25,000,000; and

etc

PS We should insist on a cap on the length (in characters) of the US Code. No new laws unless you rescind an old one.

You are forgetting something. (1)

twotailakitsune (1229480) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625359)

You are forgetting that they don't want you to be able to read bills before they pass them. If they can pass a lot of bills vary fast, it is harder for normal people to find the time to read all the bills. If you don't have the time to read all the bills, you may skip the bill that they are hiding in the mud of crap.

In Italy we have this system already (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29625361)

In Italy we already have such a system, with a diff between tha actual law and the proposed changes. I don't know if it's publically accessible.

What the hell is he on *any* committee for? (3, Insightful)

Ronald Dumsfeld (723277) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625391)

So if he won't read the legislation, and says he can't understand it, why the fuck is he on any committee that is tasked with looking at specific pieces of legislation?

It would be sad, if it was not such an obscene state of affairs. Yet, it is a general indication of the state of politics and how it is trending. The election of George W. Bush, based on the persona he projects, was a clear indication that there are more and more people who are proud to be stupid. I'm not sure if the US leads the way in chasing ignorance, or just has a higher profile in doing so. I do know that, while entertaining to watch, this glorification of fucktardery made me shake my head when Forrest Gump was released. At least there, the stupid guy is good.

As to applying software development and maintenance techniques to legislation? Interesting idea. And the guy is talking bollocks when he says it is pointless to make legislation generally available for review.

Slashdot proves that concerned members of the public can read this stuff. We've got New York County Lawyer. So, yes, the set of people who can comment may be very restricted outside the legal profession. Yet, people like NYCL can give an interpretation of the legislation, sort of reverse-engineering it to whatever talking points the politicians fed to their highly-paid legalese generators. They can then point at the specific bits of the legislation, and you can judge for yourself if they match the analysis. Well, if you've not been indoctrinated to vegetate in front of Glenn Beck et al.

As long as you know where these volunteer legal analysts actually stand on issues, this would very valuable. They help tease out parts of the proposed laws that have obviously been fed into the process by lobbying groups who do not have the public's general welfare at heart.

Apart from the obvious implication that an elected official thinks, "the public who elected me are too stupid for me to make any effort to keep them informed of what I'm doing. It is a near-criminal offense to refuse to give people a chance to have their say on vital laws. In this case, the majority do want a public option, and in an ideal well-informed democracy those who do not would accept that.

As with all things political, and in a huge number of other areas, you should always follow Deep Throat's advice to Bob Woodward. Follow the money.

Re:What the hell is he on *any* committee for? (1)

cetialphav (246516) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625741)

So if he won't read the legislation, and says he can't understand it, why the fuck is he on any committee that is tasked with looking at specific pieces of legislation?

Because being a lawyer is not a requirement of being elected. To read and understand the legal language you have to have significant legal training. Just because he is not an expert on the legal language does not mean he does not understand the broader policy objectives. The healthcare debate is hugely complicated and is going to have far reaching consequences on hundreds of millions of people for decades to come. I would much rather have my representative become an expert on these health issues and farm out the actual legal language to staffers who are experts in just this kind of thing.

It's the way the Congress is structured. (1)

tjstork (137384) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625771)

As a conservative I shouldn't be defending Carper, particularly when it comes to this crap called Health Care reform, but I can see his point on this issue.

Senators are deal makers. Actually deciding and negotiating how we will live versus organizing those rules are two entirely different jobs - representing, and lawyering. Representation is about power and deal making, and lawyering is really a technocratic function. Asking a Senator to actually organize their laws into the US code is really a lot like expecting a developer to organize everything into assembly by hand. Senators put down contracts on plain paper text, then, they hand it off to staffers whose job it is to organize the stuff into law. Sure, we could naively say that the senators should just pass the law as is, but, we would wind up with spaghetti law, a huge blob of laws that no one could follow because they were not organized. The law has to be organized to be useful, just like large computer program.

Now what would be useful would be a grammar system that did that job of taking the legislature's requirements, their "meta law", and have the computer compile that into the US Code. Actually, we'd probably just scrap the US Code or reverse engineer it into the new system, just so everything could be consistently organized. That way, you could enter a list of attributes for parties and a situation between them, and see what the law says, and you really wouldn't need a lawyer for much things any more.

Re:What the hell is he on *any* committee for? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29625797)

> So if he won't read the legislation, and says he can't understand it, why the fuck is he on any committee that is tasked with looking at specific pieces of legislation?

Because he was elected by the people of his district to represent them and make decisions about legislation on their behalf.

SVN must die! (2, Insightful)

Cyberax (705495) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625411)

Maybe we should switch to more distributed (federalized? :) ) system? Like, allow states to branch laws in their private repositories?

Re:SVN must die! (1)

Norsefire (1494323) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625563)

Only on Slashdot could we go from a discussion about hypothetically adding legal documents to a VCS to arguing about what VCS they should use.

And anyway, this is the Government; they'd end up using SourceSafe ...

This idea floats in the air (1)

Sam Lowry (254040) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625419)

I once even spend an insane amount of time trying to explain to a fellow lawyer why adapting software practices for lawmaking will be interesting, but he seemed unable to understand.

I then abandoned the issue altogether, but would be lucky to join anyone who is bold enough to impose such a system on lawmakers.

where are the doc management lobbyists? (1)

operator_error (1363139) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625471)

This is a problem I have understood for quite some time. The 'management' wants dark age technology, and will resist change; this is clear.

What I do not understand, is where are the lobbyists for the larger document management companies, (Documentum, Hummingbird, Filenet, or any others, and no I'm not endorsing here). Why is this space so quiet from those seemingly interested in Profit$?

The only explanation I can think of, well, assumption actually, is the congress doesn't want to pick say IBM (for example) to manage The Bills while having to say No to all others. I can imagine the competitive bid process for That Contract.

A few years ago, there was a bill that got passed late at night, at the very end of a session of congress. Some joker stuck in some weird provision that everyone objected to, and it got written into law because no one had time to 'look'. Version control would have clearly highlighted such a sneaky move, in time. In fact the first order of business of the new congress was to change that particular aspect of that law. Kudos to whoever can provide more precise details than me.

Re:where are the doc management lobbyists? (2, Informative)

cetialphav (246516) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625767)

What I do not understand, is where are the lobbyists for the larger document management companies, (Documentum, Hummingbird, Filenet, or any others, and no I'm not endorsing here). Why is this space so quiet from those seemingly interested in Profit$?

It would probably not be profitable for them. Developing a special system for Congress gives you exactly one customer. To be profitable with only one customer you have to charge a huge amount of money for your system. That makes doing business with the government a completely different beast than anything else you do. And then since the government is spending public money there are all sorts of arcane procedures in place to prevent abuse and you have to know how to work that system.

In general, companies that do business with the government specialize in it (or have a separate business division that does). Everyone else realizes that it is just a distraction and that there is more money to be made by concentrating on the private sector.

Formal language (2, Insightful)

loufoque (1400831) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625613)

More importantly, what they need is to use a formal definition of the law, coupled with a system that can check and prove there is no inconsistency within it.
It would also make law trivial to apply, since the system can simply deduce what applies in the given situations, which means we wouldn't need lawyers anymore, and the role of judges would be greatly reduced and simplified.

The law has to be inconsistent. (1)

tjstork (137384) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625777)

Sorry, but the law has to be inconsistent, otherwise, I doubt it could exist.

It just needs to be more organized. Consistency doesn't matter.

Bug Management (1)

kialara (145164) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625627)

More than a version control system, I think that the law needs a bug management system that people can use to put bugs in regarding language that's too open, phrases that allow "security flaws" and other interpretations that were not what the authors intended, etc.

Splendid Idea, but will need to start elsewhere (1)

starseeker (141897) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625635)

I've actually asked that question myself - whether some sort of version control system could be very useful in handling and understanding the making of and changes to the law.

Unfortunately, expecting to get such a process actually adopted is probably unrealistic at the present time - there are FAR too many people and interests who would object to the transparency implied by being able to track changes to laws (although they would doubtless find some other way to justify it - say by claiming it would raise the costs of the lawmaking process to unreasonable levels and slow down emergency bills which would Harm The Children In Need, etc...)

My suggestion on how to approach such a system is as follows: Begin with the available online resources (thomas.loc.gov, Carl Malamud's work at http://public.resource.org/ [resource.org], etc.) and start a non-profit, wikipedia style effort to import existing and historical legislation (and whatever other material may be relevant) into a version control system. It would be an EXCELLENT project for students of political history - perhaps some university departments could be persuaded to get behind it. Initial import would be quite difficult in that change sets and ordering probably couldn't start "from the beginning", so some sort of preliminary work might have to be done in either a specialized or new type of VCS. Such a project would help shake out what is needed for such a system and how to make it robust.

Once a system is up that can display historical changes in legislation and has as its contents the history of such legislation, begin to use it and continually update it with new legislation as it appears. If the utility of the system is demonstrated (as it probably would be by media and interest groups using it to decode the process) you might begin to compel the actual legislative process to look at using it.

But in the meantime it would help the public understand the end results and the history of its development, which is already a massively worthwhile goal.

If it's too complicated we just need more time. (1)

91degrees (207121) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625655)

Someone will understand the law and be willing to explain it. Someone else will be able to produce diffs. Maybe some people are altruistic enough to provide this for free.

Where's the problem in publishing? Nothing to be gained in not publishing.

why don't they put it in SVN (1)

viralMeme (1461143) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625663)

"Carper himself said, 'I don't expect to actually read the legislative language because reading the legislative language is among the more confusing things I've ever read in my life.'

So, why don't they put it in SVN (or some similar version control system) where people can tkdiff the changes (i.e. new legislation is in a branch) or output a patchset? If a bill is passed, it's merged into the trunk. It just seems so logical to me, yet I can't find any mention of doing this on the web. What do you think?"

Because legislative language is designed to be so confusing that no one can read it and the various vested interests and pork-barrel [answers.com]ers can sneak the various self-serving clauses get passed Senate. If they did what you want then people would know what their politicians really do, as distinct to saying. And then where would we be, government would grind to a hault. What are you some kind of commie-socialist-liberal.

awesome idea (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29625681)

Maybe like open source code they could offer an option for people to contribute (obviously I'd still want people to vote on it.) I can also imagine a side benefit, laws might be simplified since you'd see them and realize how ridiculous it'd be not to merge things.

I'm reminded of the GPLv3 Drafts (1)

starseeker (141897) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625687)

and the comment system that was put in place for that discussion. I wonder if paring such a system with a version control system would be a very interesting way to manage reviewing diffs between versions of legislation. Apparently the code for the GPLv3 draft debate isn't maintained any more, but the discontinued project recommends: http://www.co-ment.net/ [co-ment.net] which looks interesting.

Great idea (1)

CastrTroy (595695) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625719)

Sounds to mean like how Cory Doctorow started committing his novel writings to an source control repository. That way, you can see how his novel develops as he writes it. A lot of information is lost about how authors write when they write on computers, because you are often only left with a final copy. When it was done on typewriter, or via pen and paper, there was often multiple hardcopy revisions historians and others could look back on to see what they were thinking while writing a book.

Rv2.0 (2, Funny)

transami (202700) | more than 4 years ago | (#29625739)

You want to tkdiff a bunch of B.S.? I got one commit for you:

    $ git commit -m "revolution"

Big assumption! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29625755)

In thinking it makes sense to logically track versions, one must assume the authors WANT the reader to understand what is written. Big assumption!

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