Open Access to Gov Docs

There is more news about open access to government documents in today’s NY Times article An Effort to Upgrade a Court Archive System to Free and Easy. The article highlights the efforts of Carl Malamud of the Public Resources.Org to make court proceedings and legal records freely available to citizens and taxpayers and to overcome barriers to open access to documents published by the government. Malamud has been a long time advocate of open access to government documents with successes in posting online free CRS reports as well as the records of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Patent and Trademark Office. For more, see the December 12, 2008 Wired Magazine article Online Rebel Publishes Millions of Dollars in U.S. Court Records for Free about Carl Malamud and his open access efforts.

Malamud’s most recent open access efforts deals with Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER), the fee based and outdated electronic public access service of United States federal court documents. PACER is managed by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts and allows users to obtain for a fee case and docket information from the United States district courts, United States courts of appeals, and United States bankruptcy courts. Malamud, using $600,000 in contributions in 2008, bought a 50-year archive of papers from the federal appellate courts and placed them online. He was ready to take on the larger database of district courts, which, with the help of the Government Printing Office (GPO), 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 retrieve them. One of the activists managed to download an estimated 20 percent of the entire database consisting of 19,856,160 pages of text before the GPO suspended the program. For now, the 50 years of appellate decisions remain online and Google-friendly with the 20 million pages of lower court decisions available in bulk form, but not yet easily searchable.

The open access movement is gaining strength. Last year on October 14, Open Access Day, at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Stephen Schultze conducted a presentation on Open Access to Government Documents with some statistics about the income the PACER system generates for the courts. A PDF version of the slides used in that presentation are available here.