Tuesday, October 7, 2014

New Name, Same Domain

This blog expresses my personal thoughts on law, legal technology and occasionally other musings. I'm changing the title today from "Tabulaw" to "Linked Legislation". I'm keeping the domain name (blog.tabulaw.com), because the comments on this blog are tied to that domain and I don't want to lose the many valuable thoughts that commenters have added to these posts. At the same time, I would like the blog's title to reflect its broad focus and to evolve along with my thinking on these subjects. That evolution is, of course, influenced by my experience building technology for law.

Tabulaw was my first start-up, focused on delivering legal drafting tools to lawyers-- many of the kinds of tools that have since been built into WestLaw Plus, Lexis Advance and others. We were on to something with Tabulaw, but we did not have access to those companies' massive legal document databases. For that, and other reasons common to start-ups in the legal field and start-ups in general, Tabulaw failed.

I am now working with Xcential, a company started by Grant Vergottini and Brad Chang that, I believe will change the way that legislatures write and publish the law. We're already doing this with some great partners in the U.S. House of Representatives, with the House Modernization Project. We are in the first days of a new industry. I hope to be embarrassed, when the industry is more fully developed, by some of the naive thoughts I express on this blog. I also hope to be able to quote passages, from my posts and your comments, that make it sound like we knew all along what we were doing.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Tax Simplification Hearings - 2014

Annette Nellen at 21st Century Tax has written a post on Congressional hearings this summer on tax reform. The Senate Finance Committee, led by Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Hatch (R-UT), will consider topics including:

  • Education incentives
  • Identity theft and privacy
  • "Modernizing" corporate taxation
  • Tax simplification
As I mentioned in a comment on Annette's blog, I would like to see Silicon Valley weigh in, particularly on tax simplification, with ideas to simplify the code and technology to simplify tax filing. I have discussed this before, including the great potential to use (big) data from hundreds of millions of actual filings to simplify tax law and the practice of filing.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

U.S. House Legislative Data Transparency Conference, 2014

I am excited to be going to the U.S. House Transparency conference tomorrow (Thursday) and the Sunlight Foundation's Transparency Camp on Friday and Saturday. Less excited for the redeye flight tonight.
Much of the work Xcential has been involved with, as part of the House Modernization Project, will be on view at the House conference, and I'm looking forward to meeting (and reconnecting with) the growing group of people who care about making U.S. federal law more transparent, accessible and efficient.

If you are going to either or both of the conferences, do look for me there. I will also be following conference chatter, and maybe contributing my own, on Twitter at @arihersh .

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Move an AWS Instance to a New Account (Windows)

I've been there. You created an application for work on a micro AWS instance in your own account (Account1) just to test a few things out. It was free back then, or at least really cheap. But of course, the app grew and you've moved to a small, maybe even a medium instance. Now we're talking real money. It's time to get the company to pay. It may even be your own startup, but putting company expenses on your personal credit card is never a good practice (disclaimer 1: I am a lawyer, but I am not your lawyer; disclaimer 2: this post is my answer to everyone who said that my posts on positive law codification are not esoteric enough). The good news is that getting the app running in a company account is surprisingly easy. Follow the steps below and it should "just work".

The first thing you're going to need to do is have the company open an AWS account (Account2), if it doesn't already have one, and give you privileges to create instances under that account.

Next, you have a couple of choices. You can (a) try to recreate your app in a new instance under the company account, or (b) you can copy your existing instance to the company account. If you're here, it's because you want to do (b), particularly if you're working on Windows, with all the security settings you've set and forgotten to get your app running in the first place.

Copying the instance is done in three steps: first create an image of your running instance in Account1. Then, give permissions to that image to Account2. Last, launch an instance from that image in Account2. Here it is in detail:

1. In Account1, create an AMI of the running instance. (To be extra careful, you can stop your instance before creating the image and then restart it if you need to, later).

The AWS instructions to create an AMI are here. In brief, from the "Instances" page, choose your instance. Go to the Actions menu and select "Create Image". Include any EBS volume(s) associated with your EC2 instance.

2. Share the AMI with the account ID of Account2. This is a 12 digit number that can be found by poking around Account2. I actually found this as part of an error message when I tried to do something that I didn't have permissions for (e.g. open the billing console).

To share the AMI (from Account1) go to the left side menu within the EC2 Service: Images -> AMIs. Select the AMI you want to share (which you created in step 1 above) and go to Actions -> Modify Image Permissions. There, edit permissions to allow access from Account2. The official instructions for sharing Windows AMIs are here.

3. Log into Account2

Note: To log back in to your personal account, you may have to click the link at the bottom of the login-- "Sign-in using root account credentials":

4. Within Account2 go to EC2 services, menu item Images->AMIs.

Change the filter to "Private AMIs" (the other options are "Public" and "AMIs owed by me").

5. Select action "Launch". It will prompt you to use or create a new private key. Do this and save it somewhere safe that you remember.

Set the security settings as desired. You may want to look up the settings from your current instance in Account1.

6. Create an Elastic IP address (optional but recommended)

7. Associate the Elastic IP address with the newly launched instance it is running.

Note, if you are using Windows Remote Desktop Connection (RDC) that the new instance has the same login as the old instance so that you can still log in using RDC, just by putting in the new IP address.

8. Wait a few minutes for the IP address to propagate and check out your app on the new Elastic IP address. If it works, do the happy dance.

Monday, May 19, 2014

An Easy Act to Follow: the DATA Act and Low Hanging Legislation List II

People who think government should do less and people who think government should do more can agree on this: government should do better. Even a polarized Congress can unanimously agree on certain measures to improve government work. As discussed in my last post, the DATA Act's unanimous passage gives fresh evidence that this is possible. It also highlights the masterful non-partisan work of the DATA Transparency Coalition and it’s founder, Hudson Hollister.

There are two bills now in the Judiciary Committee that should, in principle, be even easier to pass than the DATA Act. These are the ultimate "low hanging legislation": H.R. 1067 and H.R. 1068 are both "positive law codification" bills, prepared by the Law Revision Counsel (LRC), a non-partisan office of the House of Representatives whose job is to maintain the United States Code and to prepare bills such as these. [Disclosure: I work with the author of these bills, Rob Sukol, and many of the other great folks at the Law Revision Counsel on the House Modernization Project.] These two bills do not change the substance of the law, but they update the United States Code to make the law cleaner and better organized. Both bills have been passed twice by the House and have gone to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where they have died, apparently from neglect.

H.R. 1067 amends title 36, United States Code. It is a short, technical bill that inserts a useful table of contents at the beginning of title 36 and corrects several typographical errors in the law.

H.R. 1068 is the more intricate of the two. The bill gathers provisions relating to the National Park System and restates these provisions as a new positive law title of the United States Code, Title 54. It was sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia (R) and co-sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, Jr. of Michigan (D). Title 54 would replace nearly 70 existing laws covering laws about national parks, starting 1901. Many of these laws are currently scattered throughout (non-positive) Title 16 of the United States Code.

If you care about public policy (like actually protecting National Parks), H.R. 1068 does not do anything. But in this Congress, that's actually a good thing. The bill does not change the meaning or impact of the law at all. But it does carry out a clean-up job of epic proportions. And that clean-up is noticeable each time a lawyer wants to refer to national park law.

For example, section 208 of the National Historic Preservation Act Amendments of 1980 is currently classified at  16 U.S.C. 469c–2, while section 401 is at 16 U.S.C. 470a–1. The correspondence between references to the named act and references to the U.S. Code can't be calculated with any formula. It is also unclear, a priori, how sections of the original National Historic Preservation Act of 1966  relate to sections of the NHPA Amendments or to the U.S. Code (for example: section 2 of NHPA -> 16 U.S.C. 470-1).

Another layer of confusion and redundancy is introduced by parallel citations. Depending on the context, it may be necessary to include parallel references to (1) the popular name reference (e.g. National Historic Preservation Act), (2) the Public Law which enacted it (e.g. Pub. L. 89-665), (3) the page in the Statutes at Large publication where it is published (80 Stat. 915), as well as (4) the section of the U.S. Code where the section is classified (16 U.S.C. 470 et seq.).

After enactment of Title 54, only the U.S. Code reference will be needed. Indeed, H.R. 1068 goes through the U.S. Code and through previously enacted laws to clean up references:
Section 105(l) of Public Law 99–239 (known as the Compact of
Free Association Amendments Act of 2003) (48 U.S.C. 1905(l)) is
amended by striking ‘‘the National Historic Preservation Act (80 Stat. 915; 16 U.S.C. 470–470t)’’ and substituting ‘‘division A of subtitle III
of title 54, United States Code’’
I have previously referred to positive law codification as one of two important steps in Operation Clean Desk, to improve how Congress drafts laws. With these two bills, Congress has a chance to do a great deal by doing very little at all. Which, I think is the perfect example of Low Hanging Legislation. I hope that I can report before long that these bills have been passed and signed into law.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

DATA Act and the Low Hanging Legislation List

This is the most polarized Congress ever. It has been mathematically proven. Before you turn to the good news in my next paragraph, do read the proof, discussed in the Slate article by Jordan Ellenberg in that last link. The article also provides proof that I traveled with the smart set in college. Jordan, author of "How Not to Be Wrong" and our generation's Martin Gardner, shows up regularly in my Facebook feed (he's married to my college friend Tanya Schlam).

For the general business of governing, polarization is unhelpful. Think reform on immigration, patent, tax law, or even passing a reasonable annual budget. So what to do when Congress is so ideologically split? Demonize and yell at and each other, of course.

And, hopefully, pass meaningful, non-ideological legislation while nobody’s looking. That’s what happened late Friday afternoon, when President Obama signed the DATA Act into law, after unanimous passage in the House and Senate. This is not an insubstantial bill. It will require every Federal agency to report its budget and expenditures in a standardized digital format, injecting unprecedented financial transparency into the workings of the Federal government. By standardizing financial reporting formats, it will also (I believe) streamline budget reports, which currently consists of a sprawling patchwork of ad hoc paperwork.

The DATA Act is the first of what I'd like to call the Low Hanging Legislation List.  Bills that (1) are non-ideological, (2) non-controversial, and (3) provide for technical improvements in government. The DATA Transparency Coalition will now turn to passage of the Financial Industry Transparency Act, which aims to standardize (and digitize) financial regulatory filings. Sunlight Foundation has also advocated for a number of transparency bills that should be supported by legislators on both sides of the aisle.

To these sensible recommendations, I would like to add H.R. 1067 and H.R. 1068. These are "positive law codification" bills, which I believe are the lowest hanging of all meaningful legislation.  They do not change the substance of the law, but instead organize it. To give a sense of how this organizing works, H.R. 1068 would repeal nearly 70 laws going back to 1901, and replace them with one, organized Title of the U.S. Code.  More about these bills, and why they should be next on the Congressional legislative agenda, in my next post.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Calling All XSL-FO Gurus: ePublish the Law

My last recruiting post did so well (welcome again, Ian Davey) I'm doing it again. We are looking for someone who wants to help us redefine government publishing of legal information: laws, reports, and other documents.

Xcential works with the U.S. House of Representatives, the State of California, Hong Kong, among others. In these projects, we have the opportunity to help define document data formats (XML for the U.S. Code, for example) and a new workflow for publishing legal documents electronically.

Have you worked with XSL-FO or other e-publishing technologies? Do you know someone who has? Are you self-directed? Interested and able to work from anywhere (we have 6 team members in 5 cities)?

Get in touch.

Now. What are you waiting for?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Open Data and the Role of Government

In my last post, I made the point that government agencies should refer to, and use, official government sources for primary law, where available. The comments, including those by Tom Bruce of Cornell's LII, and Annette Nellen of San Jose State University, underscore the important role that third-party sites like LII play in disseminating information obtained from official sources. The presence and widespread use of these sites raises the question: what is the proper role of government in publishing and disseminating primary law online.

For many years, third-party sites provided the only accessible, structured, source for certain primary law, and they still often provide the best sources or interfaces for this information.* And for years the open government community has pointed out the failings of government sites and many of the areas we have wanted to see improvement. Examples include this excellent post from Cato's Jim Harper a year ago today, this congressional testimony from Sunlight's Dan Schuman, and the excellent work by Hudson Hollister and the Data Transparency Coalition to pull such policy recommendations together (pdf).

In no small measure due to this public concern, government entities have become better online publishers of their own official documents. As I noted in my last post, the U.S. Code, now published in XML by the Law Revision Counsel, has come a long way since the days that it was updated on a 6 year schedule (still the case for the official print version). Other government electronic sources for primary law are also much improved: regulations.gov for rulemaking, congress.gov for bills, statutes and other legislative information, both improve on their aging predecessors.

Where should these sites stop and allow the private sector to take over? Is publishing bulk XML enough?

My view is that government must go beyond publishing bulk structured data. I believe that government should provide an official online source for primary law that includes structured data (XML) presented with modern web features, including:
  • hyperlinked citations, with unique identifiers at the paragraph or section level
  • dynamic navigation of contents (e.g. navigation through tables of contents)
  • full text search
In addition, I believe that an accurate and navigable point-in-time view of the law-- a kind of version control-- should also be included where possible. This would allow us to see the law as it was in force at any date. It may be unrealistic for some data sources to create this kind of record for historical documents, but document drafting processes going forward should include some kind of version control.

What do you think government's role is in publishing primary law? In particular, how important do you think web features such as navigation and search are for the official government version?

* In this category, in addition to LII and the federation of LII sites around the world, I'd include Tim Stanley's original findlaw and now Justia, Carl Malamud's public.resource.org; Josh Tauberer's GovTrack, OpenCongress and other Sunlight Foundation sites, Waldo Jaquith's work at statedecoded.com for state codes and statutes; weblaws.org; Xcential's own legisweb.com and many more.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Tax Code: Ask the Experts?

I start today's post with a curious observation: if you go to the IRS website looking for online copies of the U.S. Tax Code, what you find, on their page entitled "Tax Code, Regulations and Official Guidance" is a link to Cornell's Legal Information Institute, which hosts a copy of the U.S. Code.  Below the link is a warning:
CAUTION.  The version of the IRC underlying the retrieval functions presented above is generated from the official version of the U.S. Code made available to the public by Congress.  However, this version is only current through the 1st Session of the 112th Congress convened in 2011.  Before relying on an IRC section retrieved from this or any other publicly accessible version of the U.S. Code, please check the U.S. Code Classification Tables  published by the U.S. House of Representatives to verify that there have been no amendments since that session of Congress.
And after clicking the link the IRS directs you to another warning about links to private sites that reads:
By linking to this private business, the IRS is not endorsing its products, services, or privacy or security policies. We recommend you review the business's information collection policy or terms and conditions to fully understand what information is collected by this private business.
This strikes me as odd.  Hosting and publishing the text of the law is one function that I think both liberals and conservatives would agree should be carried out by the government itself. Here is the IRS saying that you cannot rely on them, or any other U.S. government entity, to provide you an electronic copy of the tax law. And that they don't endorse the information that is provided on the LII site either. Caveat lector, and good luck filing your returns.

Cornell does do a terrific job of compiling, parsing and presenting Federal legal information for free to the public (donate to their efforts, if you can!). And it appears that the information on their site is more up-to-date than the IRS warning would suggest. Nonetheless, their information is not fully up-to-date, and more to the point-- they are not responsible to taxpayers for providing this information. I think that Cornell and other similar efforts are best seen as filling in the gaps where government has not risen to the occasion.

But in this case, there is an excellent, updated electronic version of the U.S. Code, published by the office that compiles the Code: the Law Revision Counsel (LRC). As Cornell rightly notes (under an "update" tab here):
If you suspect that our system may be missing something, please double-check with theOffice of the Law Revision Counsel.
Yes, I'm biased-- our company, Xcential, helped the LRC convert the Code into well-structured XML, which the House announced last July. But that fact works both ways-- our team took on this project and decided to work with the House on this project, because of a fundamental belief: the official, accurate, electronic sources for our country's laws should be provided by the government.

Simple idea, no? Let's hope someone at the IRS is listening.

[Next up: IRS's internal reliance on Lexis-Nexis for tax law, opinions and analysis.]

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Waking Up Again

My last post, on Xcential hiring, has been on top for long enough, though we're always looking for great people. We now have a terrific new team member, Ian Davey, who worked with Ed Felten at Princeton at the Center for Information Policy. Ian has the mix that we are looking for of technical skills and an understanding of legislation and policy. The project he's working on now, a switchboard for legislative references, may someday become the core of legal citation. We continue to look for others, so do get in touch if you think you're interested in shaping the future of legislative technology (or if that phrase even makes sense to you).

It's now time to talk about problems again. And my next post will be about the Internal Revenue Service, a favorite government agency of mine.  There are great opportunities, as I've written previously, for efficiency and transparency in providing tax law information to professionals and the public. But my next post will be on something simpler: having an up-to-date version of the Internal Revenue Code available from the IRS itself (spoiler alert: the IRS currently points to an outdated version of the Code).