Seamus Kraft’s Acceptance Speech for the 2016 James Madison Award

Today, Seamus Kraft, executive director and co-founder of The OpenGov Foundation, was honored by the American Library Association with their James Madison Award at the 2016 National Freedom of Information Day Conference. The James Madison award honors organizations or individuals who have championed, protected and promoted public access to government information and the public’s right to know how it functions. You can watch the video of his remarks above or read them below.

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Thank you, President Feldman and the entire American Library Association for this incredible honor. While it pains me to not be with you all in real life, it is, perhaps, appropriate that I join you digitally, both to give thanks and to share with you our small, fiercely apolitical non-profit that’s seeking to rebuild law and lawmaking for our digital age.

And while it falls to me to accept the James Madison Award, I am doing so on behalf of the entire OpenGov Foundation family. To our team— some of whom are with you there today…raise your hands guys! — to our board and advisors, to my co-founder Congressman Darrell Issa, to our fantastic funders, to our civic tech friends and allies, to those of you who have been fighting for years for a more informed, engaged citizenry, and to my mother— my first librarian and greatest teacher: this one is for you.

We are gathered here today surrounded by a tremendous community of open government allies, partners and friends. True partnership is rare in this world, and one of the best things about the work we all do. True partnership is what powers The OpenGov Foundation. It has to, since we are a very small non-profit with a very large mission: creating a 21st century operating system for legislatures, one that is free and open source, runs on open legal data and that is fueled by the deep love for liberty, equality, and personal freedom on which this great American experiment rests.

The OpenGov Foundation exists to help transform paper-based legislatures into digital ones, radically increasing their efficiency and effectiveness, and revolutionizing how representative government works with and for citizens. Our focus right now is building the first one in partnership with the Chicago City Council, but we’ll be back in Congress with something exciting very soon. I invite you to learn more at OpenGovFoundation.org and, if you like what you see, lend whatever support you can.

Our massive mission — transforming not one but all legislatures from the paper-based past into the digital present and future— began a little more than four years ago inside the U.S. House of Representatives, where I served as a staffer. We were born during a white-hot Congressional battle to, fittingly, protect public access to the Internet and to preserve your right to know what the federal government is doing with your tax dollars.

Openness advocates won that critical debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act— SOPA— and the Protect IP Act— PIPA. The best part is that this community triumphed, not with loads of lobbyists and special interest money, but by going back to the basics, updating America’s founding principles for the Internet Age.

We won by opening up the legislative process for the public on the Internet, putting political and policymaking power back into the hands of the people, giving everyone an equal voice and a seat at the table. To keep the web open, our humble contribution from the inside of Congress was this: a piece of homebrewed, hacked together online policymaking software that we, somewhat aspirationally— and very much admiringly— named Madison.

Today, that struggle for equal and open access continues. In fact, it is as old as America. And as open technology and open information has become the infrastructure of our daily lives, The OpenGov Foundation and this community are fighting to bring the benefits to our civic lives.

I do not need to tell you that this is a fight. And on its outcome rests nothing less than the future viability of representative government in the United States of America.

Today, I hope to share with you an urgent yet hopeful view from the front lines, where we have been since December 2011 and those fateful first days with Madison.

“The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty,” wrote President Madison, whose words are as true today as they were nearly two hundred years ago.

His wise words sprung from decades of deep and dangerous sacrifice for “true liberty.” He had witnessed and waged two bloody wars for it. He had architected and then argued for this unique place on earth, where true liberty is not just a possibility, but a foundational principle, a place where freedom is a feature, not a bug.

You don’t need to be a pollster or a pundit to know that, now more than ever, liberty needs guarding…but from what? In this enlightened age, who could ever be against the advancement and diffusion of knowledge? Who could possibly seek to limit our liberty?

Sadly, some people do. Ladies and gentlemen: we have met the enemy. It is among us, invading our libraries, infiltrating our legislatures, and actively impeding the advancement and diffusion of civic knowledge. But unlike Madison’s day, the enemy is not tyrannical, monarchical monopolists of public knowledge and printing presses. No, we face an even more insidious foe: one that I call the Political-Legal Industrial Complex.

This cabal is comprised of enormous legal industry corporations and the politicians who are their pawns. The Political-Legal Industrial Complex now privately controls, in one way or another, the vast majority of the most important public information in America: our public laws, legal codes and legislation, our rules and regulations, the very edicts of our governments.

Imagine if you had to pay a fee to read the Constitution, or if the Declaration of Independence was copyrighted by the printer who printed it. While Congress has mostly prohibited the Political-Legal Industrial Complex from owning federal information, what you just imagined is reality everywhere else.

What are the effects of the Political-Legal Industrial Complex? If the keystone data for democracy is in the hands of big business, if public access is blocked by paywalls and ridiculous copyright restrictions, we no longer have a government based on laws, not men, because we don’t have the laws.

If the public law is under private control, at some point you can no longer advance and diffuse civic knowledge. You can no longer foster an informed and engaged citizenry. And you cannot possibly enjoy the full freedom and liberty that is every American’s birthright. Those are the stakes, as past James Madison Award-winner Aaron Swartz knew all too well. The tragedy of Aaron’s death is Exhibit A that the Political-Legal Industrial Complex will stop at nothing to protect and perpetuate this broken system that ultimately benefits only them.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at our local governments. At this very moment, two of America’s most powerful cities— two of the most powerful, if not the most powerful cities in the history of the world— do not have control of their own laws. They do not own their own laws any more. The Political-Legal Industrial Complex does, and it is holding those cities hostage for petty, private gain.

Look at our state governments. According to Sarah Glassmeyer’s groundbreaking State Legal Information Census, and I quote, “No state provide[s] barrier-free access to their legal information.” A whopping 94% of state laws are covered in copyright restrictions. And 100% of states have, at some level, effectively ceded ownership of the public laws to private corporations.

It gets worse. One state government that shall remain nameless— but it is a place famous for its peanuts— is suing an American citizen, Carl Malamud, for doing nothing more than publishing its public laws on the Internet. Carl, a lifelong advancer and diffuser of knowledge, stands accused by that state government of piracy. And that state government goes even further, alleging that the simple act of publishing public laws online is, and I quote from the lawsuit, “a form of ‘terrorism.’”

Does this make us terrorists? That’s for the courts and for Congress to decide, but one thing is crystal clear: This is how the Political-Legal Industrial Complex works. It poll-taxes the public laws, extracting rent and ransom to enrich itself. It holds our communities hostage, refusing to relinquish what is decidedly not theirs. It stifles innovation and openness, forcing us to play by its rules…because it owns the rules. The rancid cherry on top? The Political-Legal Industrial Complex sues into silence anyone who dares try to loosen its vice-like grip on our central democratic data.

Now, you may be asking, “But what should become of legal services industry? Should we do away with codification companies and private standards-making bodies? But what of the lawyers?!? What of the book printers?!? What of LexisNexis?!?”

What of them, indeed. They’re lawyers. We want to help them be the best darned lawyers money can buy. For the fact is that most communities do not have the money or the manpower to do all the critical legal work that needs doing. And while I know there are some who disagree, I believe that there will always be a role for private enterprise in this most important of public spaces. But there is a world of difference between filling a legal resource gap to help governments fulfill their constitutional obligations and what the Political-Legal Industrial Complex has become.

There is a better way. We’re building it through our public-private-non-for-profit partnership in Chicago. Here’s how it works, and it can work anywhere, with any government, any civic technology outfit, and any legal services company…even Lexis Nexis.

In Chicago, we help create the open source means of efficient and effective legislative operations, delivering the best possible public access and the best possible civic engagement. We do this alongside Clerk Susana Mendoza, her terrific team and the City Council itself. After Council does its work, Chicago then ships its legislation to American Legal Publishing, a stellar employee-owned codification company with world-class lawyers who are wonderful people. American Legal updates the city’s laws, then delivers everything back to the citizens of Chicago, with absolutely zero restrictions and no strings attached. We then transform the law into the ridiculously useful and user-friendly public resource you see at ChicagoCode.org. Each of us is doing what we love. Each of us is putting the public first. Each of us is proudly advancing and diffusing knowledge, and guarding true liberty. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

In this time of sweeping technological change, a new day is dawning for democracy. Our community of fighters for the freedom of information is, at long last, beating back the entrenched and well-funded enemies of openness.

As the tide turns, I have a message for members of the Political-Legal Industrial Complex:

We are no longer afraid of you.

We will not let you sue us silently into the night.

And we are not going to stop until every law, and everything with the force of law, is publicly available, for free, in an open data format, and with absolutely 0 restrictions, terms of use or paywalls hindering public access.

Friends: this progress is awesome, but profoundly new and frighteningly fragile. Without a lot more help, this once-in-a-generation opportunity will slip through our fingers. So let’s seize it. We must. For we all have a serious stake in seeing American government rebuilt on the firm foundation of laws, not men, for the Internet Age.

Working together, we can return the public law to the public.

Together, we can restore faith in our great system of government.

And together, we can renew the powerful promises passed on to us by men and women like James Madison, through the laws in whose defense so many guardians of true liberty have given their last full measure.

Thank you for this opportunity, and for so honoring The OpenGov Foundation. Good day, good luck, and God Bless the United States of America.