Digitizing the World’s Laws: Authentication and Preservation

BY: Claire M Germain, Edward Cornell Law Librarian and Professor of Law Cornell University and Director, Dual Degree Programs, Paris & Berlin
Publishers Note:

Claire Germain is interested in all aspects of legal information, from rare books to digital libraries, and often writes on these topics, most recently “Digitizing the World’s Laws: Authentication and Preservation.” the topic of this posting. For several years she has been actively advocating for effective measures to bring about authentication and improved preservation of digital law locally, nationally, internationally, and globally.

In the United States we especially appreciate her efforts as AALL President in 2006 when she commissioned an AALL Fifty State Survey, which revealed that a significant number of the state online legal resources were deemed official, but none were authenticated by standard methods. As I write this in 2010, work continues on efforts to adopt the findings and recommendations of this Survey in all fifty states. With her paper “Digitizing the World’s Laws: Authentication and Preservation”, Claire Germain continues her tradition of advocacy from a global perspective.

David Badertscher

Rather than provide a lengthly discussion we have chosen to highlight the paper by presenting the following excerpts.and let you click here and enjoy reading the entire paper.
Many countries now provide online access to statutes, codes, regulations, court decisions, and international agreements. Digital law issues that have emerged include authentication of official legal information and preservation for long term access, particularly for born digital legal information which has no paper equivalent. This article is part of a chapter forthcoming in “International Legal Information Management Handbook” (Ashgate 2010).
Official and Authentic Digital Legal Sources
The terms “official” and “authentic” are sometimes used interchangeably but mean different things. An online official legal resource is one that possesses the same status as a print official legal resource. In the United States, for instance, the definition of an official version of court opinions, statutes, session laws, or regulatory materials is one “that has been governmentally mandated or approved by statute or rule. It might be produced by the government, but does not have to be.” (American Association of Law Libraries 2007) This definition is firmly rooted in the print world. Courts and public officials turn to official legal resources for authoritative and reliable statements of the law and require citation to such sources in the documents that come before them. By itself, an online official legal resource offers no such automatic assurance.

Authenticity refers to the quality and credibility of the document. It means that the text is provided by competent authority and that it has not undergone any alteration in the chain of custody.2 An online authentic legal resource is one for which a government entity has verified the content by to be complete and unaltered from the version approved or published by the content originator. Typically an authentic text will bear a certificate or mark certifying that the text is authenticated. The standard methods of authentication include encryption, especially digital signatures and public key infrastructure (PKI), or similar technologies.3 Authentication of digital law varies by country; some provide authentication through a digital signature or PKI infrastructure, others through secure servers and certificates (Hietanen 2007).
Authenticity matters because in an environment where online sources are replacing official print versions of legal information, citizens need to be able to trust digital versions of the law, in the same way that they have trusted print. Because the digital medium is vulnerable to errors in management and control, corruption, and tampering, it is of utmost importance to make digital legal information not only official but authentic.
What is at stake is the transmission of official documents, “the word of the law,” to future generations (Germain 1999).
As legal information systems mature worldwide, authenticity is seen as an essential issue by some who want to guarantee the integrity of official information. There is a great role for librarians as the research experts in providing access to legal information and as custodians of information for the long term, in any format, print or digital. The successful advocacy efforts of the American Association of Law Libraries in the USA show that librarians can influence information policy decisions for the benefit of all citizens. There is a great interest in bringing this advocacy to the international level to develop international standards, possibly within the International Federation of Library Associations, a major stakeholder for information policy.

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