PACER capers: the sordid story of America's for-pay lawbooks

Timothy B Lee has a gripping and thorough account of the work to tear down the PACER paywall, which requires that Americans pay $0.10 per page to access court files, which are necessary to understanding and interpreting the law. Aaron Swartz was investigated by the FBI for his part in extracting millions of these public domain documents from behind their paywall and making them public, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. The whole story includes some pretty shocking truth about the privacy trainwreck within PACER, which has not fulfilled its duty to redact personal information from public files; and PACER's illegal profit-making rate-hikes that go far beyond recouping the cost of running the service.

Swartz started his downloading in early September. On September 29, court administrators noticed the Sacramento library racked up a $1.5 million bill. The feds shut down the library's account.

"Apparently PACER access at the main library I was crawling from has been shut down, presumably because of the crawl," Swartz told Schultze and Malamud in an e-mail that day.

The courts issued a vague statement about suspending the program "pending an evaluation." A few weeks later, a court official revealed law enforcement had been called to investigate the suspected security breach. Malamud told us that after Swartz fessed up, Malamud grilled him to understand whether any laws had been broken. Malamud believes the fact that neither PACER nor the library had terms of service prohibiting offsite downloading made it likely Swartz's actions were within the law.

Malamud thought they would be in an even stronger position if they could demonstrate the value of the data Swartz extracted, so he began an intensive privacy audit. For most of October, Malamud worked around the clock searching for documents containing Social Security numbers and other sensitive information. Out of the 2.7 million documents Swartz downloaded—about 700GB of data in all—Malamud discovered about 1,600 with privacy issues. He then sent a report to court administrators disclosing the poorly redacted documents he had found and encouraging the courts to examine the rest of the documents in PACER to ferret out similar privacy problems.

The inside story of Aaron Swartz’s campaign to liberate court filings [Timothy B. Lee/Ars Technica]


  1. One way or another, the public will have to foot the bill for this public service.  Personally, and logically, I would much prefer to pay 10 cents per page for those relatively few pages I might need to consult on occasion, as opposed to being taxed in blanket fashion in order to make all 100% of federal filings potentially available for an actually unfree “free”.  I will never need to consult 99.999% of the pages filed in our court system, and neither will any other human being.  Your implicit argument suggests that all pages of all federal filings have something approaching equal inherent albeit abstract value (such as, say, all pages of literature; e.g., even if I don’t care for a given poem, someone else very well might).  This is not nearly the case with this data set.  If one were honestly familiar with the staggering variety, breadth, and volume of federal filings, I believe one would see that the economics behind getting this information into the hands of the people who need or want it strongly favors the print-on-demand model, which is what PACER provides.  It is not sinister to do so, it is efficient.  There is not an oppressive conspiracy lurking behind everything.

    1. “The New York Times reported PACER revenues exceeded costs by about $150 million, as of 2008 according to court reports”

      “In 2009, the Los Angeles Times gave the yearly revenue as $10 million”

      “The per page charge applies to the number of pages that results from any search, including a search that yields no matches with a one page charge for no matches. The charge applies whether or not pages are printed, viewed, or downloaded.”

      So public domain records are being used to generate a windfall for a system that is supposed to benefit the people but still charges them a fee for the access in excess of costs.  But they’ve found ways to use those dollars for more than was intended so they need to keep getting more cash.

      Would you care to comment on how efficient that system is that it pulls in millions and keeps using an inefficient model to keep that revenue flowing to itself? 

      The Internet Archive puts up the documents it frees from the system for free.
      Is LexisNexis paying 10 cents a page for getting the documents added to their proprietary database?

  2. I totally agree. This business of expecting ME to pay for stuff that benefits other people is total BS. I should only have to pay for what I use. Why do I have to pay taxes to maintain roads I NEVER EVEN DRIVE ON? That is socialism, friends.
    Why there are federal buildings in this country that I have never entered, yet I am expected to pay taxes to maintain. Library of Congress? Never been there. Supreme Court? What have they done for me?
    I am expected to pay for water I never drink, schools I will never attend all in the name of some bizarre “greater good”. Greater good is all that money going into my pocket so I can afford to live large.
    /end sarcasm

    1. What really gets me is dead body disposal.  How are these deadbeats ever going to reimburse us for their dead body removal?

      I personally think we should just leave dead bodies in the streets and let them take care of themselves by rotting away.  A libertarian dreamworld come true, it is.

      1. Well then the little people would just wear expensive earrings so that when they are found they know they might be taken care of properly as the earring woudl pay for it.

  3. I repeat, PACER does not require the public to access court files. It requires them to DOWNLOAD court files. They are free for the public to access by walking into the courthouse and asking to see them.

    1. Well its good that you have a photographic memory and are willing to bend your entire schedule to make sure you can take advantage of this.  Because you still have to pay if you want a copy at the courthouse.

      That TOTALLY is serving the public interest well, people having to give up portions of their day to memorize all of the documents for a case, or try and take perfect notes.

      Of course one is left to wonder why we are paying for the DoJ to have access to the records as well, one might think that making sure its available to the DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE would be useful.

      So our tax dollars go to collect the bill, and to pay the bill so the lawyers who are supposed to represent the country and see these records.  I suppose maybe we should start demanding they just go to the courthouse and read them for free and save millions.

      I’ve read more docs from PACER than the average person, supplied by a group of people fighting copyright trolls.  Average people paying out of their pockets so the filings can be dissected and the abuse of the legal process can be exposed.  How is this serving the public interest?  I mean its not like copyright trolls have managed to avoid paying millions of dollars in fees to the courts by improperly filing these suits.  But because of the paywall, we are left in the dark about the fraud being perpetrated on the courts unless someone ponies up to pay a bill for public domain records.

      But then as the public domain has been gutted, I can see why no one thinks this is horrible.  There was hardly a blip as the copyright cartels managed to break the agreement with the public that parts of our culture should have entered the public domain.  Oooh let me list what has gone into the public domain for the last 10 years…

      All done.

      Providing access to these records is much less than we are being charged, it is high time someone take them to task for making a profit from this system and wonder why the costs are so high for a system that works poorly.

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