In earlier guerilla raids on inaccessible government information, public-interest crusader Carl Malamud has "scraped" public-domain documents from poorly designed and fee-based government websites and re-published them on his own servers. It’s proven to be a highly effective tactic. It embarrasses the government agencies by exposing how non-transparent and citizen-unfriendly they really are. It provokes a fresh public discussion about lack of access to government information. And it actually liberates the information (or portions of it) for free public use.
Now there is a new target for “access reform” — the federal courts. The federal judiciary’s system for publishing court decisions, PACER, is a remarkably sub-standard system for the Internet age. Users have to navigate a very difficult software interface to browse the documents, and then have to pay 8 cents a "page" to download anything. It’s a ridiculous system given that we the taxpayers have paid for these court rulings in the first place, and in addition, are legally bound by them.
The Princeton Center for IT Policy has been working on an ingenious “fix” to this problem for many months. Timothy B. Lee, in conjunction with grad student Harlan Yu and friend Steve Schultze, working under Princeton computer scientist Ed Felten recently announced a new software plugin called RECAP for the Firefox web browser. He described the plugin on his blog in this way:
What RECAP does is very simple: whenever a user downloads (and pays for) a document from PACER, RECAP helps the user automatically send a copy of that document to a public archive hosted by the Internet Archive. In addition (and here’s the real selling point for users), if a user searches for a document that’s already in the public archive, RECAP will notify the user of this fact and give him the option of downloading the free version, saving the user money on PACER fees. Users can (to paraphrase Carl Malamud) save money as they save public access to the law.
Why is this important? Well, as some of my colleagues have pointed out, there’s tremendous potential for private-sector actors to do useful things with public data once it’s been pried out of the hands of the government. I don’t know what those uses might be for judicial records, but I’m confident there will be some. Moreover, judicial records are particularly important because legal decisions are binding precedent. If it’s hard for me to access the law, it’s hard for me to learn what the law requires of me. So think it’s unacceptable that almost 20 years after the emergence of the web, judicial records still aren’t freely and publicly available.
The RECAP team at Princeton developed the Firefox plug-in independently of Public.Resource.org, and neither are members of the other’s projects. But clearly the two efforts are nicely complementary. Both aim to liberate court records and make them freely available to the public.
The judiciary is apparently intent of serving the professionals who use PACER — the attorneys, litigants, scholars and media. It is less interested in whether academics or the general public can use the PACER system easily. Speaking personally, I have not browsed through recent federal court dockets using PACER, despite having a personal interest in one case, because the potential cost to riff through lots of files online was going to add up quickly.
When word of the RECAP gambit hit Slashdot, the hacker website, it ignited a storm of favorable comment. Yet it also inspired some complaints. Some commenters said they had no problem with the courts charging a per-use fee, and others worried about verifying the authenticity of official legal documents. Still others pointed out that it will take years before the Internet Archive version of court decisions will accumulate enough documents to rival the PACER databse.
All of these points may be true, but what matters is that RECAP — and Public.Resource.org’s use of it in its PACER reform campaign — have kicked off a larger public discussion about the inadequacies of the PACER system. It has shown that a superior system can be built by outsiders who cleverly re-purpose the same data. Twenty years into the Internet and our judicial records are still locked behind a paywall and a cumbersome interface? Shameful.