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Take Back the Law!

PACER, the federal government's system for Public Access to Court Electronic Records, was originally intended to make court filings more accessible to litigants and the public at large. Now, roughly a decade later, Carl Malamud and others argue that PACER actually deters access by holding public documents hostage behind an 8-cents-a-page fee wall.

So what can the public do to take back the law (ie: the judicial decisions and court orders funded by tax dollars and which comprise the body of law with which the public is bound to comply)? Some are advocating a gradual approach, urging the government to make a few improvements in the site that would improve site use and access. But others are pushing an approach that turns PACER on its head, which is exactly what The Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University is doing with its RECAP the Law project. "RECAP" -- PACER spelled backwards -- is short for recapture, as in recapturing the law.

RECAP is a neat little tool by which the the public can effect this revolution -- essentially, CITP's (nonviolent) version of the Molotov cocktail. When a user installs RECAP, any documents accessed on PACER are automatically uploaded to an Internet Archive repository and shared with other users when they do similar searches. From the RECAP site:

RECAP is an extension (or “add on”) for the Firefox web browser that improves the PACER experience while helping PACER users build a free and open repository of public court records. RECAP users automatically donate the documents they purchase from PACER into a public repository hosted by the Internet Archive. And RECAP saves users money by alerting them when a document they are searching for is already available from this repository. RECAP also makes other enhancements to the PACER experience, including more user-friendly file names.

But is RECAP illegal? Not according to Michael Arrington's analysis at Tech Crunch, which explains that the PACER site, by its own terms, specifically states that: "The information gathered from the PACER system is a matter of public record and may be reproduced without permission.” But it also specifies that "any attempt to collect PACER data in a manner to avoid billing is prohibited and may result in criminal prosecution or civil action."

Still, RECAP users are paying to collect data; it's just that the data is then being shared with an online repository. In fact, RECAP isn't all that different from commercial services that harvest documents from PACER and then resell them -- except that RECAP provides the documents free. But it seems to me that if the court were going to shut RECAP down, it would have to shut down commercial document harvesters as well.

RECAP has already made a splash in the blogosphere, with commentary roundups here and here, all singing its praises.

Naturally, I'm a fan of RECAP -- who could oppose any service that expands access to the law by making it accessible to the public at no charge? At the same time, I have to confess that PACER's 8-cents-per-page fee (with a cap of $2.40 per document) was the least of my gripes about the service, in large part because even at those rates it's still cheaper than other commercial providers. For me, the worst aspect of PACER is that it represents a lost opportunity. After a decade and substantial advances in content management and online search, PACER users are still limited to finding documents by case name or docket numbers -- we can't perform even simple word searches. What I like best about RECAP is that it may cure the search deficiency of PACER as well.

Fortunately, I've got a couple of cases pending in federal court, so I'm going to download RECAP and join the revolution! Will you?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on August 17, 2009 at 05:25 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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