Of FOIA & Free Access

It's a point of no contention to folks here at LAMP that court documents are and should be legally required to be in the public domain. But public domain currently means paying 8 cents a page to read docs on PACER -- the federal judiciary's Public Access to Court Electronic Records database. This law student can personally attest that the system is, simply put, really annoying to use. ( WIRED Magazine has described the interface as feeling like something designed for the DMV).

Open gov activists have responded to the unwieldiness of PACER by proliferating a variety of alternative online law libraries, a trend that will be discussed in a Yale ISP/ACS talk today entitled: “RECAPture the Law: The Growing Movement to Free the Electronic Record," by Princeton's Stephen Schultze and Harlan Yu.

There's a dark side to this sunshine story, however . . . Last fall, a 22-year-old programmer named Aaron Swartz took advantage of the government's offering of a free PACER trial period to run a script on a library computer that downloaded (or in the FBI's language, "exfiltrated") massive compilations of federal court records to be released the public. When the government realized what was up, they initiated a criminal investigation of Swartz, obtaining his identity, phone number, and home address from Amazon.com -- even considering staking out his house. How did Swartz find out about the investigation of him? Through a Freedom of Information Act request for his file.

For you citizen journalists and programmers out there who are curious about what your own file may hold, you can find template FOIA requests at the FBI's FOIA / Privacy Act website. Don't let them stonewall you by asking you to send in fingerprints either -- you shouldn't need that unless you are specifically requesting your NCIC criminal record.