by Timothy B. Lee - Apr 2, 2013 - arstechnicaSwartz death inspires expanded effort to liberate paywalled court docs
Document-sharing extension for Firefox now covers Chrome
and appellate courts
Aaron Swartz is remembered most for his campaign to liberate articles from the academic database JSTOR. That effort led to his indictment on federal hacking charges, which his family blamed for his January suicide. But years earlier, in 2008, Swartz liberated millions of documents from PACER, the paywalled website for federal court records.
In 2009, a group of researchers at Princeton created a Firefox extension called RECAP
to help users redistribute PACER documents. (Disclosure: I was a RECAP co-creator but am no longer actively involved in the project.) Swartz's document liberation efforts were crucial to the success of RECAP because the RECAP team seeded its databases with the 2.7 million documents Swartz had downloaded.
A few days after Swartz's death, the entrepreneur Aaron Greenspan announced the Aaron Swartz Memorial Grants, two $5000 grants to improve RECAP. On Tuesday, the RECAP project announced the winners of two grants. One recipient ported the RECAP extension from Firefox to Chrome. The other extended RECAP to capture documents from the appellate courts as well as those at the trial court level.https://www.recapthelaw.org/2013/01/20/announcing-the-aaron-swartz-memorial-grants/
Tear down this paywall
When the PACER website was created in the 1990s, it was a big step forward for public access to judicial records. Previously, users could only access information through a clunky dial-up service, or by physically traveling to the courthouse. But over the last decade, the PACER website has fallen farther and farther behind. As storage and bandwidth costs plummeted, the courts actually raised PACER fees from seven to 10 cents per page.
RECAP was intended to save users money while also illustrating the absurdity of charging so much money for access to public documents. When a user browses PACER, RECAP automatically notifies the user if the document she wants is already available for free online. RECAP also automatically sends copies of documents the user purchases to an online archive so they can later be shared with other users. The archive is hosted free of charge by the Internet Archive, a non-profit organization based in California.
RECAP has become widely used by journalists, academics, and online activists. Ars reporters are heavy PACER users, as are the anti-troll activists who have dogged organizations like Prenda Law. One anti-troll activist told us he spends about $50 a month on PACER, a number that would presumably be even higher without RECAP.
Until Tuesday, RECAP was a Firefox-only project. Now a Chrome version has been developed by Ka-Ping Yee, an engineer at Google.org.
"Aaron was a friend, and I was powerfully affected by his passing," Yee said in a statement released by the RECAP team. "His life’s work embodied many of the ideals I have long supported. I was disappointed in myself that I hadn’t done much to further these causes, and the grants gave me the opportunity to turn a time of great sadness into a useful contribution."
Yee says he will give his $5000 award to GiveWell, a charity promoted by Aaron Swartz.
The extension of RECAP to the appellate courts was accomplished by a pair of Italians, high school student Filippo Valsorda and graduate student Alessio Palmero Aprosio.
"While working on the project, we got a feel of how the PACER system is unjust and broken," Valsorda said on the RECAP website. "We were fool enough to make a search for 'Smith' and got billed $25 without any warning."
Steve Schultze, the Princeton researcher who runs RECAP, says he's still looking for ideas to improve the project. Google has pledged two $5,000 prizes for proposals to improve the system. Schultze told us that the cash is still up for grabs.Full article and links