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Google, The Good: Free Law!

Although I have used this space to question the Google Book Deal, I do not think that all The Google does is bad. Indeed, the fundamentals of where the Google Book Deal began were good. And now, as some of you may know (and Greg helped with that), Google is trying to go where no one has gone (successfully as far as I can tell) before. Yes, as of last week, The Google is

enabling people everywhere to find and read full text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts using Google Scholar. You can find these opinions by searching for cases (like Planned Parenthood v. Casey), or by topics (like desegregation) or other queries that you are interested in. For example, go to Google Scholar, click on the “Legal opinions and journals” radio button, and try the query separate but equal. Your search results will include links to cases familiar to many of us in the U.S. such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education, which explore the acceptablity of “separate but equal” facilities for citizens at two different points in the history of the U.S. But your results will also include opinions from cases that you might be less familiar with, but which have played an important role.

I like the premise that Google wants to “empower the average citizen by helping everyone learn more about the laws that govern us all.” And I was interested to see that the pagination seems to be accurate. As Google improves features such as signaling whether a case has been overruled (the citation history is there but I was not sure that one could easily tell what a case’s status was in a Shepperd’s or Key Cite way), and improves search so that one can target a document as well as one can on Westlaw or Lexis (which at this stage seem to be still superior to Google’s offering), the service may be a threat to the pay services.

So why would Google offer this service? It may be a commitment to openness. It may be a play for value-added services for a fee for those who currently use Westlaw or Lexis. Or it may be that studying how law and policy folks search a discrete body of text to find specific items will provide a great testbed for improving search in general. My bet is that it is a combination of the above is at work, with the last reason being the strongest. This quote explains why.

we were struck by how readable and accessible these opinions are. Court opinions don’t just describe a decision but also present the reasons that support the decision. In doing so, they explain the intricacies of law in the context of real-life situations. And they often do it in language that is surprisingly straightforward, even for those of us outside the legal profession. In many cases, judges have gone quite a bit out of their way to make complex legal issues easy to follow.

I often tell students to beware of opinions because they fail to live up to the view Google has of opinions. That being said, some opinions match Google’s view. To me, Google called out the language, because Goolge is interested in how a set of information is constructed, can be mapped, and mined. Legal opinions have some set rules that probably make them highly useful to those interested in search and I think the area of computer science called machine learning.

I must, as always, note the privacy issues that arise whenever online searches for information in sensitive topics occurs. Individuals may need to be cautious and lawyers seeking to save money may, I stress may, need to think about confidentiality issues. I don’t think that letting someone know you read a case or searched for information about a legal topic, necessarily runs afoul of the rules. Still, as it becomes easier to connect dots, one might find a group of lawyers who think that such searches for clients pose problems.