By Miranda S. Spivack.
Tom MacWright, a software engineer who cycles to work in Washington, D.C., would be breezing along 14th Street NW when he suddenly would find himself boxed out of the city’s bike lanes.
Businesses were running valet parking stations in the middle of the lanes, forcing cyclists to swerve into the road or stop to avoid a collision. MacWright, who blogs about cycling, privacy and technology, thought this was probably illegal. He wanted to be able to cite the law on his blog and a website he was developing for cyclists in the area.
“I wanted to create a reference to show what the current laws were and link to them,” he said. “And I wanted to link to primary sources.”
In theory, that sounds relatively easy. State and local laws usually can be found online. But in the District and dozens of other cities and states, the rights to publish those laws don’t belong to the people or the governments. They belong to private contractors.
The fight to unravel that legal maze put MacWright in the epicenter of a long-standing debate over private companies that are controlling access to government data, documents and laws. He and others are trying to keep in the public domain all sorts of data, documents, regulations and laws that taxpayers pay the government to develop but then often cannot obtain without putting up a fight or a paying hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees.
Government agencies, in many instances, have given contractors exclusive rights to the data. The government then removes it from public view online or never posts the data, laws and documents that are considered public information.