At the latest installment of the Ideas Lunch series, the GovLab hosted Carl Malamud, public domain advocate and founder of Public.Resource.org, a nonprofit organization that works to make government information more accessible. The talk centered on the role that citizens should play to free public information currently being held by government behind closed doors. His discussion covered three initiatives he has done in the field recently: (1) Advocating for updates to the public federal court records system, PACER; (2) Making technical public safety standards incorporated into law available; and (3) Reforming the IRS’s e-filing system for non-profits.
The majority of Malamud’s talk was on, Yo, Your Honor, an initiative seeing to improve PACER (Public Access Court Electronic Records), the government-run online system in the U.S. used by lawyers and the public to access public federal court records. PACER, Malamud argues, is both dangerously out-of-date technologically, and fiscally untenable. The current system is behind a paywall, charging citizens a fee-per-page (10 cents) for access to court records through their use of the online database. According to Malamud, not only is this system contrary to democratic values, the website has little oversight to ensure records released to the public do not contain personally identifying information (he has frequently found the courts have not properly redacted identifying information such as names and social security numbers).
Malamud worked with individuals – including the late Aaron Swartz – to make these public resources free. After Swartz downloaded a large number of records from the database (19, 856, 160 pages of text), the Government Printing Office shut down by this free pilot program. Six years later, Malamud is still committed to making PACER free and easier for the public. He urged citizens to take part; outlining seven possible actions he has found to advocate for free access to the PACER system:
- Outreach. Send a letter or a postcard to the judge representing your district declaring why you think PACER should be a free resource. Residents of New York City should contact the Hon. Loretta A. Preska.
- Take legal action. Sue the courts to make access to PACER free.
- Contact Congress. Tell your representative not to charge for PACER, and to support related bills.
- Billing Errors. Malamud suggests the PACER system may have billing errors and has filed a detailed audit of his results to the courts.
- Privacy Violations. Likewise, the PACER system has a large number of privacy violations. By exposing privacy violations and notifying the courts, perhaps this will force change.
- Take part in The Aaron Swartz Cup Memorial PACER Cup on May 1st. Malamud urges students to download up to $15 dollars worth of records on May 1st. PACER will waive fees of under $15 worth of documents per quarter.
- Ask to get PACER for free. Request PACER-fee exemptions for all of PACER whenever possible.
Malamud’s push to make the U.S. government more transparent extends beyond the PACER system. In an effort to force the Internal Revenue Service to release nonprofit tax forms in electronic formats, Malamud sued the IRS in 2013 when the agency denied his freedom of information requests for the e-filing records of several nonprofits. According to Malamud, making these records more available, and in machine readable format, could provide much needed transparency within the tax exempt sector.