April 21, 2014

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Introducing RECAP: Turning PACER Around

With today’s technologies, government transparency means much more than the chance to read one document at a time. Citizens today expect to be able to download comprehensive government datasets that are machine-processable, open and free. Unfortunately, government is much slower than industry when it comes to adopting new technologies. In recent years, private efforts have helped push government, the legislative and executive branches in particular, toward greater transparency. Thus far, the judiciary has seen relatively little action.

Today, we are excited to announce the public beta release of RECAP, a tool that will help bring an unprecedented level of transparency to the U.S. federal court system. RECAP is a plug-in for the Firefox web browser that makes it easier for users to share documents they have purchased from PACER, the court’s pay-to-play access system. With the plug-in installed, users still have to pay each time they use PACER, but whenever they do retrieve a PACER document, RECAP automatically and effortlessly donates a copy of that document to a public repository hosted at the Internet Archive. The documents in this repository are, in turn, shared with other RECAP users, who will be notified whenever documents they are looking for can be downloaded from the free public repository. RECAP helps users exercise their rights under copyright law, which expressly places government works in the public domain. It also helps users advance the public good by contributing to an extensive and freely available archive of public court documents.

The project’s website, https://www.recapthelaw.org, has all of the details– how to install RECAP, a screencast of the plug-in in action, more discussion of why this issue matters, and a host of other goodies.

The repository already has over one million documents available for free download. Together, with the help of RECAP users, we can recapture truly public access to the court proceedings that give our laws their practical meaning.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice work! What a good idea.

  2. Sam I Am says:

    Technically impressive, but also shortsighted.
    There appears a socialistic cultural trend that seeks to disconnect individual accountability to ones choices. $.08 a page is hardly burdensome or profitable, and clearly goes to offset costs. If additional taxes are required to make up the shortfall RECAP seems likely to create, we all will pay more in general taxes even though only a small few ever access PACER.

    In effect, the masses will underwrite the few. Same as blanket licensing on every internet connection for online merchandise like music or movies, even though many will likely never take the entertainment in the first place. This is by definition, unfair.

    For the moment the momentum is with socialization. Over time I predict that the one to one correspondence of paying for what you take or retaining the ability to leave it at no cost to yourself will regain favor as the masses react to the increased costs of socialized everything that benefit only an elite few.

    • Anonymous says:

      >>> “In effect, the masses will underwrite the few.”

      Of all the things that you would not want subject to a use tax, I would think that watching the development of our law is probably somewhere near the top. PACER is like billing people by the minute to watch CSPAN.

    • Anonymous says:

      No, my friend. *You* don’t get it. Harlan Yu specifically states that the goal is to be able to “download comprehensive government datasets that are machine-processable” and not “one document at a time.” If someone wants to download *every* document and cross-search, cross-categorize, or perform some other analysis under the PACER pricing model, they’d need a government grant in order to pay the government the fee for accessing all those documents.

      Your point is that the fee is to offset the cost of administering the repository. If another party is willing to maintain the repo, as the IA is clearly willing to do in conjunction with RECAP, then that party should be sent the entire archive with a hearty “thank you.”

      No, the point of the pay-to-play PACER scheme is to limit access.

      Props to the RECAP team.

      • Sam I Am says:

        “No, the point of the pay-to-play PACER scheme is to limit access.”

        Had that even the tiniest grain of truth to it, the access price per page would be onerous. Eight cents is less than a photocopy.

        We’ll see how well PACER with reductive revenue can keep getting the data up there to be free-mined in the first place, without an alternative revenue stream, likely from taxes. It also remains to be seen how diligent and long-term reliable a “free” RECAP turns out to be.

        My guess? RECAP goes price per page to offset costs the moment it can, eventually with advertising to turn a tidy profit. Don’t bet against human nature.

        • Kilz says:

          The costs will decrease because PACER will not have to send the document and the storage costs. The recap plugin transfers the document to another place, people getting the document for free will not use pacer to get it. So while PACER will not get the .08 cents, the costs to run PACER will also decrease, not increase.

        • JM says:

          If the issue is really the court’s budget, then the judges and their very large infrastructure (including the keeping of records) should bill litigants (or the losers) at an hourly rate, and not work endless hours for a few hundred dollars filing fee. So then the government could just get out of the business of governing, and leave it to the private sector, which allegedly can do everything cheaper.
          Fees for PACER (“Public Access to Court Electronic Records”) are not much, but their existence is a barrier to public access, because one needs to set up an account before using the system. Using a PACER account is easier and cheaper than going to the courthouse to inspect the records, but people not in the business will be deterred from using PACER

        • drew3000 says:

          And this project follows it perfectly. The tendency for group wellbeing is not outside human nature or outside the realm of self-benefit.

  3. Evan Murphy says:

    A similar, but less well-integrated project, the PACER recycling project, has been running for a while at http://pacer.resource.org/ . You may want to check in with them — at least about sharing your document pool!

    They also host a helpful FAQ about PACER documents which Sam I Am might want to read:
    http://pacer.resource.org/recycling.html

    In particular: “In 2006, the [PACER support] fund received $447.8 million, but they could only figure out what to do with $301.2 million, the so-called “obligated balance.” In other words, they had a “significant unobligated balance” of $146.6 million. At 8 cents per page for a PACER Document, they could give away 1.8 billion pages of documents to the public and still have all the money they need to pay for their computers.”

    It’s also the case that PACER themselves give away access to documents at certain law libraries to any member of the public.

    In any case, the Internet has demonstrated an amazing capability to push the marginal costs of document distribution to nearly zero — if we have a huge repository of public documents, and interested volunteers willing to do the work, why not take advantage of it?

  4. Jonny says:

    Just read about this on TechCrunch. Incredible project! Great work.

  5. Fritz says:

    I don’t believe these charges are trivial, especially when one search can cost you $0.80 and find you nothing relevant. Imagine Google charging that?

    Obviously this is a great idea. What I think is important is to get a decent way to access this without using Pacer. I spent about $10 today browsing documents and having them uploaded by Recap but I never plan on using Pacer again. I would still like to be able to see the documents I added to the system but The Internet Archive has no real way to browses these things. Hopefully that will change in the system. I can see a day where people browse on another site and only enter Pacer to fill in the gaps. There really is no reason for the Courts to use such an antiquated system.

  6. Anonymous says:

    As a non-lawyer with a Pacer account for my own case, I can attest that the fee is very onerous — not so much if you know exactly which document you need, but if you have to do any kind of search. I once did what I thought was a simple search, but it returned hundreds of pages, and if I had not canceled the search results, it would have exceeded my bank balance at the time!
    And forget about getting a fee waiver. The unwritten rule is that if you have *any* kind of job, even a minimum wage one, you don’t get any type of waiver of court costs or a pro bono attorney.
    But the above aside, I see no place to search for docs at the Internet Archive or elsewhere. So until I can see how to retrieve the docs, I see no reason why I should spend what little money I have left to upload docs I won’t be able to see. If I’m missing something, then please add some info how to do the retrieval. From my personal experience, I definitely see a need for this service, so many thanks for the efforts thus far.

  7. Anonymous says:

    If you ever thought I could have a pizza. You were right.
    I am going to have one today, not tomorrow.
    So because of this freedom to tinker, I can eat a lot of it.
    But that is not what we are talking about right now.
    so let’s continue.

  8. Tom says:

    This plug-in is very great, I like it, but I can see there are some bugs in this beta version, hope they will be fixed in next version.
    Tom

  9. Anonymous says:

    “India, for example, is coming up with a smart card for every person that would be given at the time of birth, and would eventually become the driving license and tax ID for the person.”

    Scary. What if it gets lost or stolen, or the government turns evil? What if you want to start over for whatever reason?

  10. Hunter says:

    RECAP is wonderful plugin. It came from a brilliant concept. I think it could be useful to me sometime in the future. Thanks for introducing it.
    Hunter from online bookmark