Free Our Paywalled Court Documents: The Aaron Swartz Memorial PACER Cup Contest Announced

from the go-carl-go dept

Yesterday was the two year anniversary of Aaron Swartz's unfortunate suicide. Today, Carl Malamud, the leading champion of freeing up public documents and laws, has announced a National Day of PACER Protest, to be held on May 1st, with the "winner" (explained below) to get the Aaron Swartz Memorial PACER Cup. Malamud's discussion of this is pretty long, but well worth reading. If you don't recall, Malamud and Swartz have spoken out against PACER in the past many times (as have we). PACER, of course, is the horrific, antiquated paywall system by which the federal courts lock up tons of public documents and only make them available at 10 cents per page (with some exceptions). We rack up hefty PACER bills here at Techdirt all the time.

PACER, itself, is of dubious legality. The law that established PACER says that the fees collected can only be used for the system itself, yet the system is so profitable that the money flows back into other areas of the judicial system, and the Administrative Office of the US Courts doesn't want to give up on its cash cow. The system itself is painful to use -- slow with a horrible interface -- before we even get to the ridiculousness of 10 cents per page. A few years back, the courts tested letting certain libraries have free access to PACER, leading Aaron Swartz to stop by one of the libraries and set up a system to download a bunch of these documents. The Administrative Office called the FBI on him, though (of course) he hadn't actually broken any laws so he wasn't charged with anything. This also resulted in the "pilot program" being cut off and the libraries losing their free access.

Still the documents he did get out became the initial seed for the RECAP collection, available at the Internet Archive, which any PACER user can now add to using RECAP the law, a simple browser add-on that automatically uploads documents you view on PACER to the Internet Archive's collection.

Malamud describes a three-pronged strategy to knock down that PACER paywall, which he dubs the "red, white and blue" teams. The red team involves filing lawsuits challenging PACER's legality. The blue team, which Malamud will undertake himself, involves asking a bunch of courts for an exemption to PACER for some research that he's working on (and has been for some time, involving privacy issues related to PACER).

It's the white team approach that involves everyone else. One part of it is asking people to send notes to their local judges, just to inform them how totally screwed up PACER is (since many judges may not realize how much of a pain it is to the public). But the bigger part is that Malamud has proposed May 1st as a day when he wants lots and lots of people to use PACER accounts to download documents (and RECAP them). Here's where an important "caveat" in the $0.10 per page comes into play. If you rack up less than $15 of downloads in a quarter, PACER waives your fees. So Malamud is hoping that lots of people will sign up for PACER accounts and use May 1 to download cases right up to that line, so you won't have to pay.
On May 1, what if a lot of people all downloaded $15/worth of documents and perhaps even set a record day for amount of PACER usage?

Using your $15/quarter in “free” is an easy activity. You need to get a PACER account, then you need to get the RECAP extension for either Firefox or Chrome. Do this in the first quarter so you can casually and at your leisure make sure your setup is working. That way you know you’ll be set to go on May Day....

My hope is that groups will gather together and focus on a single district or circuit court. Law schools are a natural, it wouldn’t be hard to get a couple hundred law students at a school to all go after their local district. But, this doesn’t have to be limited to lawyers! For example, there’s a wonderful group called DC Legal Hackers which was started by Alan deLevie, Rebecca Wiliams, Jameson Dempsey, and other talented public-spirited people in Washington. Likewise, Chicago has an extremely active civic community and active groups such as the Smart Chicago Collaborative, founded by Daniel X. O’Neil. My hope is that some of these groups might get involved as well! (This memo is the first they will have heard of this, so I don't presume to task them with work, but only hope they will consider participation.)

In order to support the concepts of groups working together, I have made a small grant to the Free Law Project to add a simple “group name” field to your RECAP Extension preferences. They will furnish me a report on May Day showing each file and group name, so I can tally a total by district.
In other words, you can sign up for a "team" and Malamud will see which team helps free the most documents. And for the winner:
In order to stimulate a little friendly competition, we will monitor the RECAP logs on May 1 and for the group that uploads the most data for a single court we will award the Aaron Swartz Memorial PACER Cup, a handsome artifact suitable for display in your law school or civic venue trophy case. The next year, if PACER is still behind a paywall, we will rerun the competition and the new winner will get the cup. If and when the PACER paywall gets dropped, the last one holding the cup gets to keep it. We have commissioned Point.B Studio, who worked very closely with Aaron on projects for a decade, to design and implement the PACER Cup.
We strongly recommend taking part in this, though we also recommend that you sign up for PACER now, because it takes a bit of time. Make sure you have the hang of it now, in the first quarter (for less than $15 worth) before May 1st, so you're ready. Then get the RECAP extension for your preferred browser.

Oh, and feel free to put down "Techdirt" as your "group name" if you can't find a more worthy team to join...

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  • icon
    Andrew Norton (profile), 12 Jan 2015 @ 1:12pm

    We strongly recommend taking part in this, though we also recommend that you sign up for PACER now, because it takes a bit of time.

    For those wondering what is meant by this, PACER doesn't use email for account info. at all

    your username and password are snail-mailed to you to start your account. If you need your password reset because you've forgotten it, a new one is mailed to you.

    That's why it takes so long.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 12 Jan 2015 @ 5:25pm

      Re:

      your username and password are snail-mailed to you to start your account. If you need your password reset because you've forgotten it, a new one is mailed to you.

      Why am I (Aaron) not (Aaron) the least (Aaron) surprised?

      I admire the guy (Aaron) the most for his impatience. He couldn't stand to wait for the rest of us to catch up. Poor bugger.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      R.H. (profile), 13 Jan 2015 @ 1:28pm

      Re:

      This isn't completely true. If you enter credit card information for them to bill quarterly (assuming you go over $15 of usage in three months) they do give you instant access without the snail mail issue.

      Source: I just registered using my Google Wallet card and got instant access.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Jan 2015 @ 1:46pm

    Good, why should lawyers have to pay for something when they can get taxpayers to subsidize it?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Andrew Norton (profile), 12 Jan 2015 @ 2:17pm

      Re:

      The lawyers involved in the case get ONE free read of a document. It is (officially!) advised that they save the document at that time, because further accesses will be charged at the normal rate.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 12 Jan 2015 @ 2:25pm

        Re: Re:

        This makes me think that a further BHO is needed:
        1) go to PACER
        2) Select a document. The BHO then looks to see if RECAP already has that document. If it does, it grabs the document from RECAP instead of PACER.

        Side effects: RECAP gets some good data on what docs are being looked up and by what frequency. Other side effect is that someone could mess with a RECAP document during or after the submission process, and everyone would start grabbing the modified document. However, we've already seen PACER docs modified with the RECAP version being the proof, so no system's going to be perfect.

        One other feature to add to the browser plugin is the ability to track your current quarterly charges.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 12 Jan 2015 @ 5:30pm

      Re:

      As a public service, especially as only lawyers gain from litigation, usually. Or because they gain at all and enriching lawyers is evil, or sumfin.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    kog999, 12 Jan 2015 @ 1:54pm

    "Good, why should lawyers have to pay for something when they can get taxpayers to subsidize it?"

    Lawyers pass their fees onto their clients, the taxpayers. SO what you really asking is why shouldn't taxpayers have to pay AGAIN to know the laws case history.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    lars626, 12 Jan 2015 @ 4:14pm

    Coordination

    Is someone going to coordinate which documents to retrieve?
    I would hate to use up my free ones only to duplicate effort.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Andrew Norton (profile), 12 Jan 2015 @ 6:40pm

      Re: Coordination

      If the document is already in the RECAP system, it'll show by putting a link to the RECAP'd document into the PACER page.

      It's because there's often dockets where most of the documents in it are RECAP'd but not all of them.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    RENTNdotORG (profile), 12 Jan 2015 @ 6:44pm

    Has anyone tried this?

    I just tried this in Chrome and FF. Recap recognizes Pacer login and shows existing Recap docs. It does not upload anything though. The Chrome extension has a review that it hasn't worked since Oct '14.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    R.H. (profile), 13 Jan 2015 @ 1:33pm

    This will be interesting to try out

    I have jury duty on February 5th so, assuming I get selected, I'll be using this day to see any documents attached to the case I sit on the jury for. I don't think there are any cases coming up that would require a three-month trial around here after all (at least I hope not).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Jan 2015 @ 12:22pm

      Re: This will be interesting to try out

      I'm pretty sure that's against the rules. Don't do that unless you want to get the case declared a mistrial or intend to disqualify yourself from being on the jury.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    johnf (profile), 24 Dec 2017 @ 3:49pm

    RECAP

    Unfortunately, the Free Law Project has decided to charge other organizations money to access RECAP documents, and it now denies access to organizations which refuse to pay. The new version of the RECAP plug-in only uploads documents to the FLP's own CourtListener site, while other sites, such as PlainSite and the United States Courts Archive, are no longer being updated. This decision was made in secret with no public discussion, and it was made despite the FLP's stated position that court documents should be free and freely available to everyone. For more information, please see https://www.plainsite.org/articles/20171130/why-plainsite-no-longer-supports-the-recap-initiative/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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