Freeing NYC’s Laws

by NYC Council Member Ben Kallos

New York City recently took exciting steps to free our laws and public information. Two bills, Open Law (prime sponsored by Council Member Brad Lander) and City Record Online, which I sponsored, were recently signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio into law. Now, the City’s law, the best versions of which have been inaccessible on for-fee sites, and New York’s City Record, a complete version of which has only been in print and distributed to a set group, will be open to the public and easily accessible.

“Open Law” requires the city to post a continuously updated version of the charter, administrative code and rules of the city of New York, while “City Record Online” will put the paper City Record on a public website. New York City plans to go even further than the law requires, and will unlock past City Records in a machine-readable format. To do this, New York City will leverage public-private partnership with civic technologists BetaNYC, Civic Technologists, Dev Bootcamp, Ontodia, Socrata and the Sunlight Foundation.

This is a major step in the right direction. You would not think so, but the law is, in most U.S. cities, behind closed doors. The Laws of New York, which include the City’s Charter and Administrative Code are published by the New York State Legislative Bill Drafting Commission (LBDC). Three versions of the law are printed and sold by McKinney’s, Gould’s, and the New York Consolidated Law Service (CLS), that are certified by the Assembly Speaker and Senate Temporary President. The print publications are then sold to Westlaw, LexisNexis and other online legal information vendors that sell access to their services. Even the New York City Council currently pays for Westlaw subscriptions for attorneys and staff to access the very laws it is responsible for making. The City Record has historically been distributed in print–but digital access was extremely limited until this point. Both of these laws represent progress.

I’ve been fighting to open up laws and public information for a long time: In 2006, I founded, later merged with, in order to make the law more accessible. I also founded to put New York State Assembly and New York State Senate attendance and voting records online for free for the first time.

New York City’s leaders deserve a great deal of credit. Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito have prioritized technology and open government to spur business, improve government and close the digital divide.

Through groups such as the Free Law Founders, cities across the United States are taking the lead in opening up public data and information for all to see, comment on and interact with. From app-makers to data geeks to residents who simply want to have a voice, an increasingly digital democracy creates more accountable government, more informed and engaged citizens, and better-run cities.