"“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 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.
Public datasets that state and local governments are handing off to private contractors include court records and judicial opinions; detailed versions of state and local laws and, in some cases, the laws themselves; building codes and standards; and public university graduation records.
Much of the information collected and stored by private data companies such as LexisNexis, Westlaw or CrimeMapping.com is not available to the public without a price. The information that is available often is not searchable, cannot be compared with data from other jurisdictions and cannot be copied unless members of the public pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in subscription fees."