Friday, February 27, 2009

Lieberman Letter on PACER

Press Release here.


WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., Friday sent the following letter to the policy-making body of the Federal Court system requesting proper compliance with the E-Government Act of 2002 on transparency and privacy issues as they relate to court documents:

February 27, 2009

The Honorable Lee H. Rosenthal
Chair, Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure
Judicial Conference of the United States
Washington, D.C. 20544

Dear Judge Rosenthal:

I am writing to inquire if the Court is complying with two key provisions of the E-Government Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-347) which were designed to increase public access to court records and protect the privacy of individuals’ personal information contained in those records.

As you know, court documents are electronically released through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system, which currently charges $.08 a page for access. While charging for access was previously required, Section 205(e) of the E-Government Act changed a provision of the Judicial Appropriation Act of 2002 (28 U.S.C. 1913 note) so that courts “may, to the extent necessary” instead of “shall” charge fees “for access to information available through automatic data processing equipment.”

The goal of this provision, as was clearly stated in the Committee report that accompanied the Senate version of the E-Government Act, was to increase free public access to these records. As the report stated: “[t]he Committee intends to encourage the Judicial Conference to move from a fee structure in which electronic docketing systems are supported primarily by user fees to a fee structure in which this information is freely available to the greatest extent possible. ... Pursuant to existing law, users of PACER are charged fees that are higher than the marginal cost of disseminating the information.”

Seven years after the passage of the E-Government Act, it appears that little has been done to make these records freely available – with PACER charging a higher rate than 2002. Furthermore, the funds generated by these fees are still well higher than the cost of dissemination, as the Judiciary Information Technology Fund had a surplus of approximately $150 million in FY2006. Please explain whether the Judicial Conference is complying with Section 205(e) of the E-Government Act, how PACER fees are determined, and whether the Judicial Conference is only charging “to the extent necessary” for records using the PACER system.

In addition I have concerns that not enough has been done to protect personal information contained in publicly available court filings, potentially violating another provision of the E-Government Act. A recent investigation by Carl Malamud of the non-profit found numerous examples of personal data not being redacted in these records. Given the sensitivity of this information and the potential for indentify theft or worse, I would like the court to review the steps they take to ensure this information is protected and report to the Committee on how this provision has been implemented as we work to increase public access to court records.

I thank you in advance for your time and I look forward to your response.


Joseph I. Lieberman


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Carl for Public Printer

With characteristic confidence, Carl Malamud has suggested himself for Public Printer at the GPO. I am delighted to endorse him. He brings decades of dogged advocacy and a deep understanding of how digital technology transforms the duty of publishing government information. If he were to stretch dollars at the GPO as well as he has done at his own non-profit, the agency's output would multiply many-fold. Also, his shiny head is in keeping with his bald-pated predecessors.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Open Our Government List"

Sunlight just launched a site asking for recommendations on what should be in the Open Government Directive. It looks like Sunlight has spun this out using the same software they used for "Show Us The Data".

My personal favorite so far is the wonky "Digital deposit of govt information to libraries." It's obscure but important. As libraries increasingly rely on digital collections, it's critical that they obtain the actual content of these materials rather than simply remote access to a government database (which could go away at some point).

Oh, and don't for get to vote for no-fee PACER access on the Show us the Data site.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Time for a Name Change

I've realized that my blog has outgrown its own name. My court access work fits only the broadest definition of "media," and I'm not sure how I'm going to make it fit into a post I've been meaning to write about why Flast/Hein Equal Protection taxpayer standing issues are related to internet policy. So, without further ado:

Managing Miracles: Media Policy for the Network Society

Friday, February 13, 2009

Chris Riley on Comcast, BitTorrent, and Network Neutrality

Yesterday, the Berkman Center and Harvard Journal of Law and Technology co-hosted a talk by Chris Riley, Policy Counsel for Free Press. Chris gave:

a brief history of the Comcast proceeding and other net neutrality legal efforts, and then dives into a substantive policy discussion of present and future Congressional and Commission net neutrality proceedings.

You can watch the video here.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

NYTimes: "An Effort to Upgrade a Court Archive System to Free and Easy"

Earlier today I urged folks to vote for PACER on the new Show Us the Data site. Tonight, the NY Times posted a well-researched article entitled "An Effort to Upgrade a Court Archive System to Free and Easy" on the latest efforts to "liberate" the court documents.

...a small group of dedicated open-government activists teamed up to push the court records system into the 21st century — by simply grabbing enormous chunks of the database and giving the documents away, to the great annoyance of the government.


To Mr. Malamud, putting the nation’s legal system behind a wall of cash and kludge separates the people from what he calls the “operating system for democracy.” So, using $600,000 in contributions in 2008, he bought a 50-year archive of papers from the federal appellate courts and placed them online. By this year, he was ready to take on the larger database of district courts.

Those courts, with the help of the Government Printing Office, had opened a free trial of Pacer at 17 libraries around the country. Mr. Malamud urged fellow activists to go to those libraries, download as many court documents as they could, and send them to him for republication on the Web, where Google could get to them.

Aaron Swartz, a 22-year-old Stanford dropout and entrepreneur who read Mr. Malamud’s appeal, managed to download an estimated 20 percent of the entire database: 19,856,160 pages of text.

Then on Sept. 29, all of the free servers stopped serving. The government, it turns out, was not pleased.

Carl has posted his correspondence with various courts related to their redaction errors and privacy issues.

What can you do? Vote for PACER on Show Us the Data!

"Show Us the Data": Vote for Access to PACER

A great new project on access to government documents was just announced:

The Center for Democracy & Technology and today announced the launch of Show Us The Data: The Most Wanted Federal Government Documents, a project aimed at identifying vital government information and encouraging the federal government to put it within easy reach of the public. This project will lead to a report, recommending documents and data that the federal government should make easier to find and use. The project's launch follows up on a directive from President Obama to federal agencies to proactively make information available to the public. The goal is to identify the documents and databases the public most wants to be made publicly available in usable formats. The items can be information known or thought to be in the federal government’s possession, or information that the federal government should be collecting or generating. (more...)

The project comes out of Sunlight Labs, and the top 10 documents will be announced during Sunshine Week. You can also see past years' results.

I just added a comment to the PACER entry. Vote for free, open access to federal court documents!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Crazy Copyright Provisions Proposed in Stimulus

I won't add any commentary on this other than what Public Knowledge has already stated very well.

Hollywood’s lobbyists are running all over the Hill to sneak in a copyright filtering provision into the stimulus package. The amendment allow ISPs to “deter” child pornography and copyright infringement through network management techniques. The amendment is very, very controversial for a couple of reasons:

  1. First, infringement can’t be found through “network management” techniques. There are legal uses for copyrighted works even without permission of the owner.

  2. Second, it would require Internet companies to examine every bit of information everyone puts on the Web in order to find those allegedly infringing works, without a hint of probable cause. That would be a massive invasion of privacy, done at the request of one industry, violating the rights of everyone who is online.

They are calling for people to immediately contact the relevant members.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Wikileaks Posts CRS Reports

Wikileaks has just posted the CRS reports I had mentioned a couple of weeks ago. Go Wikileaks!

Wikileaks has released nearly a billion dollars worth of quasi-secret reports commissioned by the United States Congress.

The 6,780 reports, current as of this month, comprise over 127,000 pages of material on some of the most contentious issues in the nation, from the U.S. relationship with Israel to abortion legislation. Nearly 2,300 of the reports were updated in the last 12 months, while the oldest report goes back to 1996. The release represents the total output of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) electronically available to Congressional offices. The CRS is Congress's analytical agency and has a budget in excess of $100M per year.

Their editorial continues here, with links to the actual documents.

Update: The Center for Democracy and Technology, which has for years maintained the Open CRS site, comments on the development:

Perhaps now Members will move quickly to pass legislation to provide quick and easy access to these reports and bring a halt the ridiculous cloak-and-dagger atmosphere that to-date has surrounded their release.

More coverage from:

Thursday, February 5, 2009

ACM Releases Recommendations on Open Government

I'm at Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy today presenting on open access to court documents. Coincidentally, the ACM U.S. Public Policy Committee today released a statement on the broader theme of government transparency. (For you non-Computer-Science geeks, the ACM is the "Association for Computing Machinery -- the anachronistically named membership organization of which I used to be a card-carrying member). In their "Recommendations on Open Government" they lay out a set of guidelines for government entities who publish data online. The recommendations echo the suggestions in the excellent new paper, "Government Data and the Invisible Hand", published by several folks here at CITP. On the Freedom to Tinker blog, David Robinson commented on the announcement and the role that he and Ed Felten played in shaping the recommendations. In short, the committee recommends that the government focus on making machine-readable versions of their data easily available so that others can find innovative ways to present it. The recommendations include:

  • Data published by the government should be in formats and approaches that promote analysis and reuse of that data.
  • Data republished by the government that has been received or stored in a machine-readable format (such as as online regulatory filings) should preserve the machine-readability of that data.
  • Information should be posted so as to also be accessible to citizens with limitations and disabilities.
  • Citizens should be able to download complete datasets of regulatory, legislative or other information, or appropriately chosen subsets of that information, when it is published by government.
  • Citizens should be able to directly access government-published datasets using standard methods such as queries via an API (Application Programming Interface).
  • Government bodies publishing data online should always seek to publish using data formats that do not include executable content.
  • Published content should be digitally signed or include attestation of publication/creation date, authenticity, and integrity.
More coverage: