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Law School to help make federal regulations user-friendly and Web accessible

From running a family dry cleaning business to managing a multimillion-dollar software company, nearly every economic activity is subject to federal regulation. So for people across industries nationwide, staying current on those regulations -- all contained in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) -- is crucial.

As part of the broader effort to make government documents more accessible, the Cornell Law School and the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) have joined forces to make the CFR available online in a user-friendly, easily modified and centrally located format.

The one-year partnership, announced in February, combines the technical expertise at the Law School's Legal Information Institute (LII) -- a nationwide leader in the effort to make legal information accessible online since 1992 -- with the GPO's long familiarity with the quirks and intricacies of the document.

The CFR is currently available at the Cornell Law Library and the dozens of similarly designated Federal Depository libraries around the country, as well as on various individual federal agency Web sites. But making it available online in a user-friendly form is likely to significantly increase the number of people who read it, said LII Director Thomas Bruce, who leads the project at Cornell.

"There is a very sophisticated audience for that information out there that is not lawyers, and is not what lawyers think a general audience is," he said. "You've got a ton of people out there who are hospital managers looking for public benefits law, police officers, intellectual property managers, regulatory compliance officers, small business owners ... who all have to be up on this stuff. It's a very big deal."

And if more people are aware of the regulations, more people are likely to comply with them, he said.

"It's very easy to talk about [government transparency] in a figurative way. But the practical implication is that basically, it becomes a lot easier for people to find out what they're supposed to do," he said.

The LII has been using the Internet to provide legal information since the early 1990s. (The institute hosted the 30th Web site in the world, and the first professionally oriented site outside of high-energy physics). "Cornell is really unique in this respect. There's no place else that's doing anything like this," Bruce said.

The project will create a document that includes user-friendly features like cross-referencing, links to relevant external resources and Wikipedia-like option for users to contribute.

Ultimately, the CFR will be posted on the LII and GPO servers and available for users to download or incorporate into their own sites. Law Library staff will consult with the team along the way and help users navigate the document when it is complete.

Mike Wash, GPO chief information officer, said the project is a first step in a major push by the GPO to open access to government documents.

"Beyond [the first year] I would expect that there are going to be more opportunities to work with Cornell and others to continue to make government information readily available in ways needed in the marketplace," Wash said.

"We're in it for the long haul," added Bruce. "We have a tremendous amount to learn from GPO ... what I expect is a period of code development followed by a certain amount of friendly competition that will ultimately result in much better stuff for everybody."

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