Someday your government may have as little privacy as you do.
Newborn babies have their own blogs and grandmothers are on Facebook. We Google potential dates. Privacy is dead. But one kind of information is still cozily locked away, safe from prying eyes: the law. President Obama may have come to Washington promising greater transparency, but progress has been less than impressive.
While the feds stumble toward openness, geeks and developers who made oversharing a way of life are bringing their can-do attitude to government transparency. Can't find what you're looking for on Regulation.gov? Try the new, user-friendlier OpenRegs.com. Frustrated by the terrible interface of Obama's Recovery.gov? Check out the easily-searchable Recovery.org.
But with the possible exception of the ever-leaky CIA, no aspect of government remains more locked down than the secretive, hierarchical judicial branch. Digital records of court filings, briefs and transcripts sit behind paywalls like Lexis and Westlaw. Legal codes and judicial documents aren't copyrighted, but governments often cut exclusive distribution deals, rendering other access methods a bit legally questionable. Supreme Court decisions are easy to get, but the briefs and decisions of lower courts can be hard to come by. Last week, a team from Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy took a pot shot at legal secrecy, setting in motion a scheme to filch protected judicial records and make them available for free online. One of the developers, Harvard's Stephen Schultze, says he went digging for some First Amendment precedent last fall and was shocked by the outdated technology he found. Knowing that "there's a certain geek cachet to openness projects these days," Mr. Schultze and Princeton computer science grad students Tim Lee and Harlan Yu went straight to work.
Their almost-definitely-probably lawful system works like this: Right now, lawyers, nonprofits and researchers who use PACER, the clunky database maintained by the federal court system, must hand over their credit-card numbers and pay eight cents a page for records. Eight cents a page might not seem like much until you realize that the system isn't keyword searchable.
That's right: In 2009, judicial records in the U.S. are essentially unsearchable. Digital records—with confidential personal information (theoretically) redacted by attorneys—must be downloaded in unwieldy, badly labeled chunks. This is incomprehensible to anyone under 30. But it's a sad fact of life for those who pay lawyers hundreds of dollars an hour to dig up what would could be Googled in any other field.
Messrs Schultze, Lee and Yu whipped up a sleek little add-on to the popular Firefox Internet browser called RECAP (PACER spelled backward). Legit users of the federal court system download it. Then each time they drop eight pennies, it deposits a copy of the page in the free Internet archive. This data joins other poached information, all of which is formatted, relabeled and made searchable—the kind of customer service government tends to skimp on. Users can even see what has already been liberated while within the government system, a stylish and subversive touch. This week, as RECAP picked up speed, various court offices got skittish and began sending out emails acknowledging the project's legality, but "strongly discouraging" its use anyway.
The dream of state-provided transparency goes back as least as far as Abraham Lincoln, who established the Government Printing Office, which disseminates documents like the Congressional Record, on his first day in office in 1861. PACER itself was cutting-edge in 1988 when it was introduced as a dial-up service. It simply failed to keep up with the times.
Fortunately, as America's final preteen holdouts signed up for MySpace, geeks got itchy for the next big thing. Cultural and political conditions nudged them toward government transparency. Tech celebs like Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales have flocked to the Sunlight Foundation, which uses the Internet to improve meaningful access to government. Developer Tim Lee says "there's just a ton of low-hanging fruit. The hard part is getting the data out. The fun part is doing stuff with it."
With geeks like these on the job, the time when a farm bill has 31,452 "friends" may not be far off. (Of course, 31,449 of them will be farmers.) Judicial stats may soon appear with scores from the day's games at a sports-and-courts betting site. Someday your government may have as little privacy as you do.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on August 21.