The enormous impact of cloud computing on the pace of business innovation over the last ten years bears an important lesson for the law and the government: the significant value of shared, re-usable resources.
The success of Twitter, Netflix, Uber, the iPhone and thousands of other products and companies that have launched in the last decade is in many ways directly due to cloud computing. The on-demand, pay-as-you-go cloud platforms offered by the likes of Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud have dramatically lowered the costs of innovation, experimentation, failure and growth. This has had enormous benefits for consumers, both in the form of business innovation and reduced prices.
How cloud computing changed innovation
Before cloud computing, running a business on the Internet required multi-year hardware agreements, large up-front capital investments, and high ongoing operating and maintenance costs. If your business was an overnight success and thousands of users overwhelmed your service, you had little chance of reacting fast enough to add additional servers to handle the load before your paying users walked away, frustrated.
Amazon CTO Werner Vogels is famous for telling companies to stop spending money on undifferentiated heavy lifting and move to the cloud instead.
This undifferentiated heavy lifting was all the hard work that every business had to do before they could focus on the value created by their product or service.
- It was undifferentiated because everyone had to do the same thing (buy and maintain hardware and everything required to run it).
- It was heavy lifting because it was expensive and time-consuming.
Businesses were spending a lot of time and money on something that neither differentiated them from their competitors nor added value for their customers.
Cloud computing turned all that on its head. Anyone can now, in literally seconds, get basically as much hardware as they like, pay for it by the hour, and throw it away when they no longer need it. Amazon, Microsoft and Google do the heavy lifting for them. As a result, businesses can spend a much bigger portion of their time and money on their competitive edge, innovating for their customers.
The muck of consolidating law
So what does that mean for the law and the government?
In South Africa, as in almost every other African country and many others around the world, there is no source of freely accessible, openly licensed, consolidated legislation. In many instances, the government itself does not own a full digital collection of consolidated legislation.
Companies such as Lexis Nexis, Sabinet and Juta make a business out of taking the original acts from the Government Gazettes, re-capturing and typesetting them, consolidating them by applying amendments, and publishing them. A public function—disseminating the law—has been privatised.
To work with and use the law, civil society, the government and the private sector must either perform these same laborious tasks or pay others who have performed them.
This is undifferentiated heavy lifting.
- It’s undifferentiated because anyone and everyone who needs up-to-date, consolidated laws must first go through this process. Doing so doesn’t help companies differentiate themselves from their competition, since they all need to do the same work.
- It’s heavy lifting because the process requires expertise, is laborious and time-consuming, and is thus expensive.
How this hurts us
Companies with consolidated collections need to recover the costs of the consolidation process, pushing up customer prices. The nature of the product means that they’re not willing to share their collections openly for re-use since they’re a valuable investment. This means the barrier to entering the industry is high because a new entrant must build up a body of legislation before they can even begin to add value. Competition and innovation is therefore poor, which again hurts the end user.
There’s also the additional concern that everyone must and should have access to up-to-date versions of a country’s laws. Unfettered access is the most basic requirement of the rule of law. The government, civil society and the private sector all need it in order to function effectively.
Stop wasting money
Here’s what we can learn from cloud computing: we must stop spending money on undifferentiated heavy lifting when it comes to the law.
Every country needs a collection of its laws that is:
- available to all, for free
- openly-licensed for commercial and non-commercial use
- machine-friendly with rich metadata
- consolidated, and available as it was at a particular point in time
Such a collection will free up the private sector to differentiate themselves from their competition. It will lower costs for companies, the government and end users. It will lower the barrier to entry and promote innovation in the legal and justice domains.
Importantly, it will allow all individuals, civil society, the public and private sectors equal access to the laws that govern them.
Who and how?
A coalition of public, private sector and civil society organisations must collaborate to ensure openness, fairness and efficacy.
Government, as the originator of laws, is best placed to seed and drive the creation of such a collection. They can mandate the use of appropriate standards (more on this below) and processes that ensure openness and inclusivity. Government is also critical for contributing to processes to maintain and add to the collection as new laws are drafted, promulgated and repealed.
An excellent starting point is the existing collections held by the private sector. They are generally the highest quality, broadest collections of up-to-date, consolidated legislation. If their owners are unwilling to share these collections then civil society and the government must work together to build a collection from scratch.
PDFs are not good enough
The format of the collection is important. A collection of PDFs or webpages isn’t sufficient. Cloud computing works because the utilities being sold are useful in a wide variety of contexts and industries. So, too, must these digital laws be machine-friendly and data-rich in order to be broadly useful, including for use-cases we don’t yet know about.
Machine-friendly formats are critical because there is so much more value in legislation beyond the “words on a page” that a PDF encapsulates. Legislators can write better laws if technology helps them understand the impact of potential changes; paralegals can provide better support if they have access to richly annotated legislation and cross-linked case law; citizens will have better access to justice if they understand more clearly how the law is woven into their day-to-day lives.
An excellent candidate format is Akoma Ntoso. It is an open (ie. non-proprietary), standardised format for legislative documents that can capture the content, structure and semantics of a piece of legislation. It is machine-friendly, can be used to generate webpages, e-books and PDFs, and enables many other use cases such as those listed above.
The legal and justice domains will not see the same degree of rampant innovation that cloud computing has driven over the last decade, until we build a common collection of our laws.
We, as a society, have so much work to do to make the law approachable and accessible, understandable, useable and useful. We can only tackle these challenges if we stop investing in undifferentiated heavy lifting, build on a common base, and free up our resources to invest in innovation.