Providing Electronic Access To Public Records Is 'Expensive' And Other Government Excuses For PACER Fees
from the well,-if-you're-not-going-to-give-it-away,-i-guess-we'll-just-have-to-go dept
Steve Schultze at Freedom to Tinker wants to know why the general public is still being asked to pay for access to public records. Since these records are generated using tax dollars, a person would reasonably expect they would be free to access, especially since they're the ones footing the bill. Of course, reasonable expectations are shattered by government entities daily and PACER is no exception.
As Mike noted in 2011, the fees to electronically access PACER records continue to rise, even as costs drop, leaving most Americans locked out by prohibitive fees (and a less-than-intuitive user interface). Schultze notes that not only are these fees excessive, they very likely are illegal.
[L]et’s review the law. 28 U.S.C. 1913 (note) says:
“The Judicial Conference may, only to the extent necessary, prescribe reasonable fees… to reimburse expenses incurred in providing these services.”
Upon passing the E-Government Act of 2002, Congress noted its intent for the “only to the extent necessary” language:
The Committee intends to encourage the Judicial Conference to move from a fee structure in which electronic docketing systems are supported primarily by user fees to a fee structure in which this information is freely available to the greatest extent possible. For example, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts operates an electronic public access service, known as PACER, that allows users to obtain case and docket information from Federal Appellate, District and Bankruptcy courts, and from the U.S. Party/Case Index. Pursuant to existing law, users of PACER are charged fees that are higher than the marginal cost of disseminating the information.
The current fees are unquestionably greater than the cost of providing the services. Since passage of the E-Government Act, the cost of storing and delivering bits of data over the Internet has continued to fall precipitously, and the cost of PACER access has gone up by 42 percent.
To that end, Schultze has drafted a bill entitled the Open PACER Act, which provides for “free and open access to electronic federal court records.” The draft bill is dedicated to the memory of Aaron Swartz (whose “abuse” of a limited-time free access offer greatly helped give the RECAP project momentum) and is open for comment at openpacer.org. (Schultze himself assisted Swartz in this venture, putting together the Perl script for automating the PACER downloads. Shultze had plans for a “thumb drive corps” of volunteers to hit multiple libraries and utilize the free access to download millions of documents. However, Swartz struck out on his own, scraping PACER via Amazon cloud servers, leading directly to his first contact with the FBI.)
Now, we all know why we think these documents should be freely available. Now, it's time to hear from the judicial system. Schultze runs through the many reasons the government thinks we should keep on paying, summarized from a
list of excuses fact sheet entitled “Electronic Public Access Program Summary: December 2012.” He compiles a list of 10, all worth reading (and mocking), but here are a few of the better (pejorative form) ones.
Excuse #1: “PACER is cheap”
Whether or not PACER is subjectively inexpensive is immaterial. The law says that the fees can only reimburse for the expense of the service, and the courts are charging more than that. End of story. Nevertheless, PACER is — subjectively — expensive. Although it costs “only 10 cents per page,” the system charges not only per page for documents, but per “page” of search results, and per “page” of docket listings. It is easy to quickly run up a huge bill unless you are looking for one particular thing and you know exactly how to find it.
10 cents per page might sound like a standard library charge for printouts or copies, but we're talking about electronic access, where accessing 1,000 pages has no discernible effect on the “cost” of retrieving the documents. And charging per page or search results or docket listings? That's like having a surcharge added to your restaurant check for “accessing” the menu before ordering. The ridiculous search results charge is even more insulting considering how poorly PACER's search function performs.
Excuse #6: “You can always go to the courthouse”
This is a good one. The Administrative Office will tell you that you can go to your local courthouse to access PACER records for free. Well, maybe not “local,” but you can go to the district, bankruptcy, or circuit courthouse and access PACER. Of course, you can only access records for that particular court. You can’t access other PACER records. You also can’t download the records. You can only view them. If you want to print them, that will be 10 cents per page. That’s not legal.
No. Seriously. Dry-as-straight-vermouth-in-the-Sahara “lol,” the sort of laugh hastily assembled from equal parts of disbelief and disgust that inadvertently escapes you blindsided with the least helpful advice ever. Citizen: “I wish to electronically access several public records for free.” Administrator: “Do you own a car?”
Not only is this suggestion utterly worthless, it's the height of bureaucratic obtuseness. Equating “a drive to the courthouse” with “electronically accessing the total of the PACER system on my schedule” is the sort of logic only deployed by someone who wishes to appear helpful but not actually help anybody. To top it off, you can only search that specific location's documents and then MEMORIZE ALL PERTINENT INFORMATION or you're back to 10 cents a page. No downloading allowed. Beautiful.
Excuse #8: “There is a high cost to providing electronic public access”
Here is how the PACER system architecture works: every court runs its own local PACER server, with local support staff and a private leased network link to Washington, DC. Are you a system administrator? Are you an average citizen who has heard the word “cloud” in the past five years? Does this system architecture seem insane? It is. It is even more offensive in light of the fact that the GSA has had, for years, a streamlined government procurement system for cloud hosting. This system is certified at FISMA level 2 security, and is hosted in a “private cloud” for the government, which is good enough for the Department of Homeland Security. It is provided by companies like Amazon at only a fraction higher cost than their commercial offerings. The courts could host all of the PACER services in the cloud — tomorrow — for under $1 million per year. They could allow all of these local system administrators to control their own PACER installations. They could obtain greater cost savings (and security) by further consolidating PACER hosting and system administration. Of course, they feel no pressure to do so when they interpret the law to allow them to charge whatever they deem necessary.
No one's denying there are costs associated with providing electronic access. But a majority of those costs flatten dramatically once the documents are uploaded. Compare that to “driving down to the courthouse,” which ties up however many employees it takes to get you up and running on their local PACER service, not to mention staffers taking phone calls from those unwilling to cough up 10 cents a page for an updated docket listing.
Not only is the complaint about costs ridiculous, but taxpayers are being double-dipped for some of these fees. Taxpayers fund the generation of the documents, and as Schultze points out, PACER's largest users are also government entities. In 2009, the DOJ alone paid over $4 million in PACER fees. That's public money transferring from one government entity to another, while the taxpayer supports both the one handling “Accounts Payable” and the one handling “Accounts Receivable.”
Public access is a noble goal, but the PACER system as it stands now locks out many members of the public with escalating fees and an intimidating, counterintuitive interface. The priority has shifted from public access to making money. Hopefully, another push towards free availability will get the ball (re)rolling. After all, Joe Lieberman (of all people) asked this very same question all the way back in 2009. Four years later we're still waiting for an answer. And the longer we wait, the more we pay.