by Mike Masnick
Tue, Apr 2nd 2013 4:15pm
by Mike Masnick
Thu, Jan 24th 2013 7:30am
from the would-be-nice dept
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.
by Mike Masnick
Tue, Oct 25th 2011 1:28am
from the public-domain-fail dept
It seems like we're hearing about more and more attempts by the courts to scare people away from RECAP. Lawyer Michael Barclay sent over the following text he saw when he logged into the PACER system for the District of Massachusetts federal court, which goes so far as to tell people who are accessing PACER on a "fee exempt" account that they're forbidden to use RECAP:
NOTICE FOR PACER FEE-EXEMPT USERSThat part where they say that fee exempt folks are barred from using RECAP had me scratching my head. Could the courts legally do this? According to the PACER FAQ:
The court would like to remind fee-exempt PACER users of the terms of the exemption and of potential issues associated with a new software application called RECAP. It was designed by a group from Princeton University to enable the sharing of court documents on the Internet. Once a user loads RECAP, documents that he or she subsequently accesses via PACER are automatically sent to a public Internet repository. Other RECAP/PACER users are then able to see whether documents are available from the Internet repository. A fee exemption applies only for limited purposes. Any transfer of data obtained as the result of a fee exemption is prohibited unless expressly authorized by the court. Therefore, fee exempt PACER users must refrain from the use of RECAP. The prohibition on transfer of information received without fee is not intended to bar a quote or reference to information received as a result of a fee exemption in a scholarly or other similar work.
NOTICE FOR CM/ECF FILERS
The court would like to make CM/ECF filers aware of certain security concerns relating to a software application or .plug-in. called RECAP, which was designed by a group from Princeton University to enable the sharing of court documents on the Internet. Once a user loads RECAP, documents that he or she subsequently accesses via PACER are automatically sent to a public Internet repository. Other RECAP/PACER users are then able to see whether documents are available from the Internet repository. RECAP captures District and Bankruptcy Court documents, but has not yet incorporated Appellate Court functionality. At this time, RECAP does not appear to provide users with access to restricted or sealed documents. Please be aware that RECAP is "open-source" software, which can be freely obtained by anyone with Internet access and modified for benign or malicious purposes, such as facilitating unauthorized access to restricted or sealed documents. Accordingly, CM/ECF filers are reminded to be diligent about their computer security practices to ensure that documents are not inadvertently shared or compromised. The court and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts will continue to analyze the implications of RECAP or related-software and advise you of any ongoing or further concerns.
A court may, for good cause, exempt persons or classes of persons from the electronic public access fees, in order to avoid unreasonable burdens and to promote public access to such information.Um. If it is supposed "to promote public access to such information," shouldn't they be encouraging the use of RECAP for fee exempt folks? In digging around, I also found the identical notice to what's on the D.Ma. site -- and while there's no date on it, on the listing of announcements it's a few below March of 2010 -- so this particular statement may actually be a few years old. Either way, it seems troubling that PACER is trying to restrict the use of RECAP and claiming that certain users are forbidden from using it. I don't see how they have the right to do that. Along those lines, after being pressed on the subject back in 2009, the court system stated that the federal court system is fine with RECAP, so I'm a bit confused (and troubled) by the conflicting messages.
Is the federal court system really trying to tell people they can stop them from redistributing public domain info?
by Mike Masnick
Wed, Aug 26th 2009 4:41pm
from the but-who-sent-out-those-letters? dept
by Mike Masnick
Mon, Aug 24th 2009 1:50pm
from the and-that's-how-it-goes dept
The court would like to make CM/ECF filers aware of certain security concerns relating to a software application or "plug-in" called RECAP, which was designed to enable the sharing of court documents on the Internet.I especially like the "scare quotes" around "open-source." Of course, I'm not quite sure why the fact that the extension is open source makes it any more vulnerable to being "modified for benign or malicious purposes." Either way, looks like the Federal Courts don't like competition eating away at their PACER profits.
Once a user loads RECAP, documents that he or she subsequently accesses via PACER are automatically sent to a public Internet repository. Other RECAP/PACER users are then able to see whether documents are available from the Internet repository. At this time, RECAP does not appear to provide users with access to restricted or sealed documents.
Please be aware that RECAP is "open-source" software, which means it can be freely obtained by anyone with Internet access and could possibly be modified for benign or malicious purposes. This raises the possibility that the software could be used for facilitating unauthorized access to restricted or sealed documents. Accordingly, CM/ECF filers are reminded to be diligent about their computer security and document redaction practices to ensure that documents and sensitive information are not inadvertently shared or compromised.
The court and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts will continue to analyze the implications of RECAP or related-software and advise you of any ongoing or further concerns.
by Mike Masnick
Wed, Aug 19th 2009 11:39pm
from the is-this-good-or-bad dept
by Mike Masnick
Fri, Aug 14th 2009 3:44am
from the about-time dept
Now there's a new service that has an interesting tactic to try to help bring these documents to the public domain. Ed Felten's Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University is announcing a service and a Firefox extension called RECAP (it's PACER backwards), with the tagline: "turning PACER around." It's a bit ingenious. Basically, if you're a PACER user, you install the Firefox extension, and any documents you access via your PACER account automatically get uploaded to a public archive (hosted by the Internet Archive folks). If the document has already been uploaded, the extension alerts you to that fact in PACER, so you can access the open archived one.
While the folks at PACER might not like this, it's all perfectly legal. The documents are public domain, and people can do whatever they want with the documents once they have them. Creating a public archive is one option -- and a rather useful one at that. The real question is how many PACER users will actually participate in the program in order to make this a truly useful resource. At launch time, this public database has already been seeded with about a million documents, but the question is how quickly will it grow? No matter what, conceptually, this is a fantastic idea that hopefully will help to open up public domain court information that has been locked behind PACER's paywalls for too long.