Stephen Schultze, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, is a computer geek, not a lawyer. So he was shocked by what he found when he went spelunking for some First Amendment cases in the clunky proprietary database that holds the country's judicial records. Prying information such as judicial filings or court transcripts out of the PACER document system requires users to wade through unsorted data and pay eight cents for each page they download.
"Because there's no keyword search, there was no way for me to find out the answer to a relatively simple question without paying for the whole archive," says Schultze. Inspired to use his skills to improve the bleak situation, he teamed up with Prince-ton computer science graduate students Tim Lee and Harlan Yu. The trio is part of a do-it-yourself movement of digital natives working to drag government kicking and screaming into the transparent, fully searchable Internet age. Their project is to take information about the law, which isn't copyrighted and should be public already, from the government and make it accessible to all comers.
The team, based at Prince-ton's Center for Information Technology Policy, created an add-on to the popular Firefox Internet browser, which they dubbed RECAP (PACER spelled backward). Paying customers of the federal court system can download it from recapthelaw.org. Then, as they go about their normal business, the add-on quietly copies every page they buy to the free Internet Archive. These data join other government information poached by transparency activists, all of which is formatted for easier use.
Activists hope this particular set of court records will be liberated within 12 months, but efforts to improve executive and legislative transparency still have a long way to go.