New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

City and State News Upgrading Our Laws by Ben Kallos

Upgrading Our Laws

Code runs our world. Whether legal or software lines of code, we live by rules that dictate what can and cannot be done. While software code has grown exponentially more advanced in recent years, our legal code lags behind. Courts struggle to resuscitate laws as living by applying them to facts and technologies that were not possible when those laws were written. The Legislature must stand up to the challenge of upgrading our legal code and systems to keep pace with our software code—to build a government as modern and innovative as the rest of the world we live in.

New York City— the largest in the country—is in a unique position to lead on the most exciting developments in technology and transparency:


Knowledge is power, and the Internet has become a library of the world’s knowledge—except that it’s restricted to those on one side of the ever-broadening digital divide. New York City must fulfill its mandate to provide universal broadband by treating internet providers like public utilities that must provide free and affordable high speed internet to our city’s working families.

We have particular leverage when renegotiating existing monopolies and for our state when negotiating approval for national mergers. Seven Council members joined me in a joint letter to the Public Service Commission arguing that if Time Warner Cable and Comcast were to merge, it would only be in the public interest were they to make a commitment to net neutrality and free high speed internet to NYCHA residents, the unemployed, public schools, libraries, as well as a vast expansion of free or affordable service to recipients of income-qualifying public benefits.


Rules reform, long sought in Albany, happened nearly immediately in the New York City Council under the leadership of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Upgrading our body’s public information is a crucial part of this reform. Legislative information will soon be “machine-readable”— in a form a computer can process— with an open API, so third parties can analyze the government information or utilize it for apps or sites that make it easier for the public to understand.


New York City continues to build on Gale Brewer’s landmark 2012 Open Data law to use technology to build better run and more accountable cities. Recently Mayor de Blasio signed into law two bills to transform the way the public receives information: Open Law, authored by Councilman Brad Lander, requires that the city post the full legislative code and charter on nyc. gov. Previously New Yorkers had to pay for reliable versions of the law—a broken model. City Record Online mandates that crucial information in the paper City Record, including public meetings, land use matters and city contracts, must go online. To unlock 50 years of past City Records, the city partnered with civic developers.

We must still streamline public information. Open FOIL legislation I’ve introduced with Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilman Jimmy Vacca creates a centralized tracker for FOIL requests, encouraging agencies to be more responsive. The Public Online Information Act and eNotices legislation would mandate information be online and easily accessible. To save money and share ingenuity between legislatures and agencies, my Free and Open Source Software act and Civic Commons legislation would require the city to give priority to free and open source licenses software. In this spirit, I started the Free Law Founders with San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell to share laws between local legislative bodies and spread a digital democracy platform to legislatures throughout the nation.

In this era of vast opportunity, we have the opportunity to upgrade our legislative codes to make them as innovative as our software.

Ben Kallos represents the Upper East Side in the New York City Council.


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