Firefox Plug-In Frees Court Records, Threatens Judiciary Profits
· By Ryan Singel
· August 14, 2009 |
· 2:07 pm
Access to the nation's federal law proceedings just got a public interest
hack, thanks to programmers from Princeton, Harvard and the Internet Archive,
who released a Firefox plug-in designed to make millions of pages of legal
Free as in beer and free as in speech.
The Problem: Federal courts use an archaic, document-tracking system known as
PACER as their official repository for complaints, court motions, case
scheduling and decisions. The system design resembles a DMV computer system,
circa 1988 and lacks even the most basic functionality, such as
notifications when a case gets a new filing. But what's worse is that PACER
charges 8 cents per page (capped at $2.40 per doc) and even charges for
searches an embarrassing limitation on public access to information,
especially when the documents are copyright-free.
The Solution: RECAP, a Firefox-only plugin, that rides along as one usually
uses PACER but it automatically checks if the document you want is already
in its own database. The plug-in's tagline, `Turning PACER around,' alludes
to the fact that its name comes from spelling PACER backwards. RECAP's
database is being seeded with millions of bankruptcy and Federal District
Court documents, which have been donated, bought or gotten for free by
open-government advocate Carl Malamud and fellow travelers such as Justia.
And if the document you request isn't already in the public archive, then
RECAP adds the ones you purchase to the public repository.
The plug-in was released by Princeton's Center for Information Technology
Policy, coded by Harlan Yu and Tim Lee, under the direction of noted computer
science professor Ed Felten.
That's a pretty good hack, but it's still just a stop-gap measure until the
federal courts figure out that in the age of the internet, charging citizens
to search and read public documents should be a federal crime.
Using it should not cause journalists, lawyers or law students (PACER's main
customers) any legal trouble. After all, court documents are never
But you never know how the justice system might react. Last fall, the federal
court system shut down a pilot program that offered free PACER access at a
few libraries around the country after it figured out that Malamud and hacker
Aaron Swartz took them at their word and started downloading court decisions
by the gigabyte.
That got Malamud 20 percent of the fed's court filings and an interrogation by
FBI agents earlier this year.