A group of open-government activists is trying to make federal court records searchable on the Web, the New York Times reports. The activists say Pacer, the government-run database of court records and dockets, is antiquated and charges too much. Pacer is short for Public Access to Court Electronics Records system.
Personally, I love Pacer. It’s reasonably cheap (8 cents a page), fast and reliable. It could have a better search function. But the activists, I fear, will just end up making the U.S. court system less open. If all these sometimes sensitive court records are just thrown up and available to anyone to browse through a Google search engines, judges will be much quicker to grant motions to seal. And there is already too much sealing of public court records now. If you’re interested in big cases that affect public policy, you can already pretty much Google those briefs, because someone usually has posted them.
Last year, Carl Malamud of the group Public.Resource.org urged fellow open-government activists to use a free Pacer progam at public libraries to download federal court records to post on the Web. Says the Times:
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.
A notice went out from the Government Printing Office that the free Pacer pilot program was suspended, “pending an evaluation.” A couple of weeks later, a Government Printing Office official, Richard G. Davis, told librarians that “the security of the Pacer service was compromised. The F.B.I. is conducting an investigation.”
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