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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

Transparency – Another Effort to Force PACER to Become Free

This article from Wired, also pasted below, describes clever computer people devising a way to push harder towards forcing the federal courts to stop using court records in PACER to generate money, thereby limiting transparency. In essence, new software on Firefox tells you if a document you want already is in a free database, and also picks up copies of documents pulled out of PACER and adds them to the free database. Through this and other steps, perhaps some day even bankruptcy courts will be transparent.

Firefox Plug-In Frees Court Records, Threatens Judiciary Profits

By Ryan Singel August 14, 2009 2:07 pm Categories: The Courts

Access to the nation’s federal law proceedings just got a public interest hack, thanks to programmers from Princeton, Harvard and the Internet Archive, who released a Firefox plug-in designed to make millions of pages of legal documents free. Free as in beer and free as in speech. The Problem: Federal courts use an archaic, document-tracking system known as PACER as their official repository for complaints, court motions, case scheduling and decisions. The system design resembles a DMV computer system, circa 1988 — and lacks even the most basic functionality, such as notifications when a case gets a new filing. But what’s worse is that PACER charges 8 cents per page (capped at $2.40 per doc) and even charges for searches — an embarrassing limitation on public access to information, especially when the documents are copyright-free. The Solution: RECAP, a Firefox-only plugin, that rides along as one usually uses PACER — but it automatically checks if the document you want is already in its own database. The plug-in’s tagline, ‘Turning PACER around,’ alludes to the fact that its name comes from spelling PACER backwards. RECAP’s database is being seeded with millions of bankruptcy and Federal District Court documents, which have been donated, bought or gotten for free by open-government advocate Carl Malamud and fellow travelers such as Justia. And if the document you request isn’t already in the public archive, then RECAP adds the ones you purchase to the public repository. The plug-in was released by Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, coded by Harlan Yu and Tim Lee, under the direction of noted computer science professor Ed Felten. That’s a pretty good hack, but it’s still just a stop-gap measure until the federal courts figure out that in the age of the internet, charging citizens to search and read public documents should be a federal crime. Using it should not cause journalists, lawyers or law students (PACER’s main customers) any legal trouble. After all, court documents are never copyrightable. But you never know how the justice system might react. Last fall, the federal court system shut down a pilot program that offered free PACER access at a few libraries around the country after it figured out that Malamud and hacker Aaron Swartz took them at their word and started downloading court decisions by the gigabyte. That got Malamud 20 percent of the fed’s court filings and an interrogation by FBI agents earlier this year. Hopefully RECAP will get a friendlier reception from the U.S. Federal Court System.

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