We've talked about the importance of carrying on
the work that Aaron Swartz began, and the global efforts at hackathons
to do just that. However, a few have started working on very specific proposals to try to carry on some of Aaron's work. Specifically, they're trying to build on the effort over which he was first investigated by the feds: his attempts to free up public domain
court documents that are locked up behind PACER's paywall.
For the uninitiated, despite being public domain, court filings are locked up in an incredibly antiquated electronic document system that the federal courts all use called PACER. Anyone can get access to PACER (though using the system, which has never been an example of modernity, takes some figuring out), but it costs $0.10 per page to download any documents. That's what Aaron was trying to "free."
While his initial effort, making use of a "trial" at certain libraries allowing free access to PACER was shut down, his downloads did become the crux of the RECAP project
, a browser plugin built a few years ago by some Princeton students, which would automatically upload any document you accessed via PACER to the Internet Archive where they could be viewed for free going forward.
Unfortunately, RECAP itself more or less stagnated
after many of those behind it left Princeton. However, following Aaron's death, there have been a couple of interesting developments, driven in large part by a different Aaron, Aaron Greenspan
. First, he set up three grants of $5,000 each
to update the RECAP extension. It's currently only available in Firefox, but there are grants for expanding it to Chrome and to IE, while also updating the Firefox browser to cover appeals court documents. This would be huge. I tend to use PACER via Chrome, so I've been unable to contribute much to RECAP lately.
But the second part of the plan, also put in place by Greenspan, is what he's calling Operation Asymptote
, to try to get lots of people to help out in freeing PACER documents. He's using the one slight exception to the $0.10 per page rule: PACER does not charge you
if your total charges add up to less than $15 per calendar quarter. In other words, you can basically download 150 "pages" during a quarter for free. Now, that's not really 150 pages of court documents, since PACER also charges for searches. And, since some court documents can be pretty long, 150 pages can actually go pretty fast. But Greenspan is suggesting that if we can get a lot of people to sign up for PACER (and RECAP) and download a small amount, keeping under the $15 line, then effectively, a large group of people might free large parts of the public domain material in PACER for free (you need to have a valid credit card to sign up, but if you keep under the $15, then you don't get charged).
This is being done in association with Greenspan's PlainSite, a site which tries to make legal information as public as possible (we've linked to them in the past for their research into Intellectual Ventures' shell companies
). Part of the goal is to actually pull together the details of cases worked on by "every US Attorney or Assistant US Attorney" during their career. For example, you could look at cases involving Stephen Heymann
or those involving Carmen Ortiz
. On the Operation Asymptote page, they even have a link that will automatically point you to cases where they're missing documents, so it's one click easy.
I have no idea if enough people will actually participate to make a difference, but after the slight hassle of signing up for a PACER account (and then a chance to witness just how poorly designed
PACER is) anyone can help out for free. It seems like a worthwhile goal.