October 13, 2009
PACER In the News
Did you hear the one about Aaron Swartz? He's the guy who grabbed 18 million of pages of PACER documents without paying for them before the Courts figured it out. The "taking" netted Swartz an investigation by the FBI. The details of the investigation became clear when Swartz filed a Freedom of Information Act request for his FBI file. Wired lists the steps the Bureau took in this story. No need to recount them here except to say that they were rather thorough but did not find any criminal history for Swartz. There would have been surveillance, but for the fact Swartz lived on a dead end street with few cars. Strange vehicles would have been too obvious.
PACER, as most everyone knows, is the electronic docket for the federal courts. PACER also requires a login ID and password to access public documents. That's not to protect them, but to establish an account for someone to pay the eight cents per page per view/download. It's a better deal than wandering over to the clerk's office and paying a dollar or more to copy documents directly from the court file.
If these are public documents, and when they are not under seal, they are, why do the courts insist on charging for them? The legislation that set up PACER required the Judicial Conference of the United States to recover costs. However, critics have charged that the fees in place do more than recover costs. Senator Lieberman has questioned the courts about the profits they make for PACER access, as well as the failure to redact personal information in documents that can be used in identity theft. He noted that the law was changed to make the charges optional, but that the courts have yet to take the hint. Perhaps Congress should do more than hint and simply open up the database. After all, GPO is a free resource. And that leads us back to Mr. Swartz and his brush with the law.
The hint led the courts to experiment to opening PACER to some selected libraries. One was located in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals library, not far from where I'm writing this. Swartz installed a short script on the free public access terminal that requested and uploaded a document to a cloud repository every three seconds. It was about three weeks later that the court staff noticed the activity and shut down the script. The courts then shut down the free PACER experiment.
What happened here should never have happened at all. Aside from the argument that information wants to be free, especially public information, why was this computer not locked down or set up with filters? Libraries across the country have filters and other software that offer some form of public access yet still prevent users from getting to critical parts of the system. I have less of a problem with what Swartz did than the fact that he was able to install a script on a computer at a federal court facility. It's hard enough to get into the Dirksen Court House (home to the Northern District of Illinois and the Seventh Circuit) but apparently not so hard to compromise a computer in the building. I'm curious as to what the security arrangements were and the aftermath of the script discovery. Could sensitive documents have been at risk by someone else with the same level of access?
As for the courts, none is necessary if PACER were a free public resource. Which it should be. PACER is often requested by patrons, at least in my library. PACER is one of those resources that would be a great addition to electronic training for law students. Congress should simply pass legislation that forces the Judicial Conference to open the system to the public. For more on the history of PACER and the attempts to open it, see the (DePaul) Rinn Law Library Blog posting here. [MG]
all the PACER money goes to keeping it up and maintaining the servers for it
"Representatives from the Administrative Office of the Courts describe the policy as mandated by Congress and limited to reimbursing the expenses of operating the system. This paper identifies the sources of these claims and places them in the context of the increasing push to make government data freely accessible."
Posted by: Steve | Oct 20, 2009 6:04:47 AM
My husband is a programmer for the CM/ECF system (electronic case filing system linked with Pacer) and parties involved in the case do get "one free look" to download the document in the case that they are in when they get a notice that a document has been filed. Yes, others can complain about not getting free access, but all the PACER money goes to keeping it up and maintaining the servers for it. Being able to go to the court and read the pleadings is (I believe) free, the technology it takes to have it conveniently accessible to anyone who wants it doesn't have to be.
Posted by: Colette | Oct 14, 2009 11:12:32 AM
Aside from the argument that information wants to be free, especially public information, why was this computer not locked down or set up with filters?
Information may want to be free...but those of us who pay our rents and college/library school loans with the money we make for knowing how to access information are totally fine with it *not* being free...
Posted by: Mikhail Koulikov | Oct 13, 2009 5:58:55 PM