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Two RECAP Grants Awarded in Memory of Aaron Swartz

2013 April 2
by citp

In memory of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, Think Computer Foundation (http://www.thinkcomputer.org) and the Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP) at Princeton University (http://citp.princeton.edu) are announcing the winners of two $5,000 grant awards for improving RECAP.

Since 2009, a team of researchers at Princeton has worked on a web browser-based system known as RECAP (http://recapthelaw.org) that allows citizens to recapture public court records from the federal government’s official PACER database. The Administrative Office of the Courts charges per-page user fees for PACER documents, which makes it expensive to access these public records. RECAP allows users to easily share the records that they purchase to and freely access documents that others have already purchased.

Shortly after the unexpected death of Mr. Swartz, Think Computer Foundation announced that it would fund grants worth $5,000 each to extend RECAP and make use of data contained in Think Computer Foundation’s PlainSite database of legal information.

Two of these grants are being awarded today.
read more…

$10,000 in Further Awards for RECAP Projects

2013 February 3
by citp

Today, teams across the country are hard at work on the Aaron Swartz Memorial Grants. These grants, offered by the Think Computer Foundation, provide $5,000 awards for three different projects related to RECAP.

We are delighted to announce additional awards. The generous folks over at Google’s Open Source Programs team have pledged to support two more RECAP-related project awards — at $5,000 each. These are open to anyone who wishes to submit a proposal for a significant improvement to the RECAP system. We will work with the proposers to scope the project and define what qualifies for the award. All projects must be open source.

There are several potential ideas. For instance, someone might propose add support to RECAP for displaying the user’s current balance and prompting the user to liberate up to their free quarterly $15 allocation as the end of the quarter approaches (inspired by Operation Asymptote). Someone might propose to improve the archive.recapthelaw.org interface, and to improve detection and removal of private information. Someone might propose some other idea that we haven’t thought of. You may wish to watch the discussion of a few of these initial ideas from our developer kickoff session.

Email info@recapthelaw.org if you are interested. Thanks again to the Think Computer Foundation and Google.

Announcing the Aaron Swartz Memorial Grants

2013 January 20
by recapthelaw

Last week, our community lost Aaron Swartz. We are still reeling. Aaron was a fighter for openness and freedom, and many people have been channeling their grief into positive actions for causes that were close to Aaron’s heart. One of these people is Aaron Greenspan, creator of the open-data site Plainsite and the Think Computer Foundation. He has established a generous set of grants to be awarded to the first person (or group) that develops the following upgrades to RECAP, our court record liberation system. RECAP would not exist without the work of Aaron Swartz.

Three grants are being made available related to RECAP. Each grant is worth $5,000.00:

  1. Grant 1: Develop and release a version of RECAP for the Google Chrome browser that matches the current Firefox browser extension functionality

  2. Grant 2: Develop and release a version of RECAP for Internet Explorer that matches the current Firefox browser extension functionality

  3. Grant 3: Update the Firefox browser extension to capture appellate court documents, and update the RECAP server code to parse them and respond appropriately to browser extension requests

For more details, see The Aaron Swartz Memorial Grants. If you are interested, you must register by the end of January.

We are honored to be part of one of the many projects being undertaken in Aaron Swartz’s honor.

RECAP Featured in XRDS Magazine

2012 January 10
by recapthelaw

XRDS Magazine recently ran an article by Steve Schultze and Harlan Yu entitled Using Software to Liberate U.S. Case Law. The article describes the motivation behind RECAP, and outlines the state of public access to electronic court records.

Using PACER is the only way for citizens to obtain electronic records from the Courts. Ideally, the Courts would publish all of their records online, in bulk, in order to allow any private party to index and re-host all of the documents, or to build new innovative services on top of the data. But while this would be relatively cheap for the Courts to do, they haven’t done so, instead choosing to limit “open” access.

[...]

Since the first release, RECAP has gained thousands of users, and the central repository contains more than 2.3 million documents across 400,000 federal cases. If you were to purchase these documents from scratch from PACER, it would cost you nearly $1.5 million. And while our collection still pales in comparison to the 500 million documents purportedly in the PACER system, it contains many of the most-frequently accessed documents the public is searching for.

[...]

As with many issues, it all comes down to money. In the E-Government Act of 2002, Congress authorized the Courts to prescribe reasonable fees for PACER access, but “only to the extent necessary” to provide the service. They sought to approve a fee structure “in which this information is freely available to the greatest extent possible”.

However, the Courts’ current fee structure collects significantly more funds from users than the actual cost of running the PACER system.

read more…

ABA Webinar: Public Access to Court Records – Protecting Personal Sensitive Information

2011 March 30
by recapthelaw

On March 17, 2011, Steve Schultze participated in an ABA webinar on public access to court records and the related privacy implications. You can download the MP3 of the webinar. You can also download the written materials.

Schultze and Lee on RECAP at NYLS

2011 March 17
by recapthelaw

On February 15, Steve and Tim spoke at New York Law School on “PACER, RECAP, and Free Law.” Video of the event is below:


RECAP Extension 0.8 Beta Released

2010 October 6
by recapthelaw

We are proud to announce beta version 0.8 of RECAP.

This release of RECAP fixes an issue introduced by the newest version of PACER, which has been deployed to several district courts. We’d like to thank the users that brought this issue to our attention and also encourage all RECAP users to contact us if you notice any irregularities in the future. Each district court operates their own version of PACER, so there are often small differences in code which can affect the way that RECAP operates.

In addition, we’ve added a feature that will allow CM/ECF users to more conveniently contribute documents to the RECAP archive. A substantial number of our users are attorneys who have a separate “ECF” login as well as a standard PACER account. Many of these users find it easy to download and pay for PACER documents while logged into the ECF system, but previous versions of RECAP would not upload these documents to the shared archive. Version 0.8 changes this behavior, allowing ECF users to contribute these documents to the RECAP archive.

When we released RECAP over a year ago , we intentionally disabled the extension when it detected an “ECF” login. We did this because we did not have experience with the non-public ECF system and we wanted to be completely certain that RECAP did not inadvertently upload private information. After spending a considerable time since then analyzing the ECF system, we believe the changes introduced in this release will have no impact on the privacy of our users and will not increase the risk of public disclosure of private information. Version 0.8 of RECAP activates only when an attorney has logged into both ECF and PACER systems and only on pages that display publicly available information. Our code is open source, we encourage the geeks out there to examine it and to report any potential issues.

We remain committed to preventing private information from being disclosed inadvertently and we encourage users to report issues if inappropriate personal information is found within the RECAP archive.

If you’re an existing Firefox user, Firefox periodically checks for updates to extensions and should automatically fetch the new version of the RECAP extension. Or you can force it to check immediately by clicking Tools->Extensions->Find Updates (or, depending on your Firefox version, Tools->Add-Ons->Find Updates). As always, please let us know if you find any bugs.

RECAP Extension 0.7 Beta Released

2010 September 7
by recapthelaw

We are proud to announce beta version 0.7 of RECAP. This release adds support for Firefox 4 beta, for those of you living on the cutting edge.

We’ve also added a feature requested by our users. Before this release, the only way to see if RECAP had any free documents for a particular case was to purchase and examine the docket report for that case. In version 0.7, RECAP will notify you before you run a docket report if there is already free archived docket available. On the docket query page for a case that has archived information, you should see a box appear at the bottom of your screen. Clicking on that link will take you to RECAP’s summary page, which includes any docket information we have on the case as well as links to any documents we may have. Here’s an example of what you should see:

Visual of new RECAP feature

Version 0.7 also fixes a number of bugs, both minor and major. Thanks to a few extremely helpful users, we were able to fix a problem that prevented RECAP from working correctly behind certain types of proxy servers. Users behind a corporate proxy or firewall should be sure to upgrade.

Finally, this release marks the first version of RECAP to be hosted on addons.mozilla.org. Transitioning to addons will allow us to more quickly add support for new versions of Firefox.

If you’re an existing Firefox user, Firefox periodically checks for updates to extensions and should automatically fetch the new version of the RECAP extension. Or you can force it to check immediately by clicking Tools->Extensions->Find Updates (or, depending on your Firefox version, Tools->Add-Ons->Find Updates). As always, please let us know if you find any bugs.

RECAP Firefox Search Plugin

2010 September 2
by recapthelaw

One of the ideas behind the RECAP project is that once government data is made accessible in a free and open format, people will find useful new ways to search and process that data. We have heard from many folks looking to do interesting things with the documents archived by RECAP, and last year a group of students built the searchable web-based RECAP Archive. Today, Brian Carver shared a simple tool he built on top of that — a Firefox RECAP search plugin. You know that little search box in the top-right corner of Firefox? If you install his plugin you can choose the RECAP Archive as one of the search engines in the drop-down menu, so that finding free federal court documents is even easier.

Pretty cool!

Assessing PACER’s Access Barriers

2010 August 17
by recapthelaw

The U.S. Courts recently conducted a year-long assessment of their Electronic Public Access program which included a survey of PACER users. While the results of the assessment haven’t been formally published, the Third Branch Newsletter has an interview with Bankruptcy Judge J. Rich Leonard that discusses a few high-level findings of the survey. Judge Leonard has been heavily involved in shaping the evolution of PACER since its inception twenty years ago and continues to lead today.

The survey covered a wide range of PACER users—“the courts, the media, litigants, attorneys, researchers, and bulk data collectors”—and Judge Leonard claims they found “a remarkably high level of satisfaction”: around 80% of those surveyed were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the service.

If we compare public access before we had PACER to where we are now, there is clearly much success to celebrate. But the key question is not only whether current users are satisfied with the service but also whether PACER is reaching its entire audience of potential users. Are there artificial obstacles preventing potential PACER users—who admittedly would be difficult to poll—from using the service? The satisfaction statistic may be fine at face value, assuming that a representative sample of users were polled, but it could be misleading if it’s being used to gauge the overall success of PACER as a public access system.

One indicator of obstacles may be another statistic cited by Judge Leonard: “about 45% of PACER users also use CM/ECF,” the Courts’ electronic case management and filing system. To put it another way, nearly half of all PACER users are currently attorneys who practice federal law.

That number seems inordinately high to me and suggests that significant barriers to public access may exist. In particular, account registration requires all users to submit a valid credit card for billing (or alternatively a valid home address to receive log-in credentials and billing statements by mail.) Even if users’ credit cards are never charged, this registration hurdle may already turn away many potential PACER users at the door.

The other barrier is obviously the cost itself. With a few exceptions, users are forced to pay a fee for each document they download, at a metered rate of eight-cents per page. Judge Leonard asserts that “surprisingly, cost ranked way down” in the survey and that “most people thought they paid a fair price for what they got.”

But this doesn’t necessarily imply that cost isn’t a major impediment to access. It may just be that those surveyed—primarily lawyers—simply pass the cost of using PACER down to their clients and never bear the cost themselves. For the rest of PACER users who don’t have that luxury, the high cost of access can completely rule out certain kinds of legal research, or cause users to significantly ration and monitor their usage (as is the case even in the vast majority of our nation’s law libraries), or wholly deter users from ever using the service.

Judge Leonard rightly recognizes that it’s Congress that has authorized the collection of user fees, rather than using general taxpayer money, to fund the electronic public access program. But I wish the Courts would at least acknowledge that moving away from a fee-based model, to a system funded by general appropriations, would strengthen our judicial process and get us closer to securing each citizen’s right to equal protection under the law.

Rather than downplaying the barriers to public access, the Courts should work with Congress to establish a way forward to support a public access system that is truly open. They should study and report on the extent to which Congress already funds PACER indirectly, through Executive and Legislative branch PACER fee payments to the Judiciary, and re-appropriate those funds directly. If there is a funding shortfall, and I assume there will be, they should study the various options for closing that gap, such as additional direct appropriations or a slight increase in certain filing fees.

With our other two branches of government making great strides in openness and transparency with the help of technology, the Courts similarly needs to transition away from a one-size-fits-all approach to information dissemination. Public access to the courts will be fundamentally transformed by a vigorous culture of civic innovation around federal court documents, and this will only happen if the Courts confront today’s access barriers head-on and break them down.

(Thanks to Daniel Schuman for pointing me to the original article.)