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In late January, Aaron Greenspan announced “Operation Asymptote” to the influential Liberation Technologies mailing list:

In case anyone is interested, I’ve built a tool to crowdsource the downloading of PACER materials. You can find details here:

I looked into Operation Asymptote, and recommend it as an effective and poetic tribute to Aaron Swartz‘s memory. Here’s some background on how it works.

“PACER” stands for Public Access to Court Electronic Records. It’s a network of servers hosting case and docket information from federal district, bankruptcy, and appellate courts.

As far as open government history is concerned, PACER was ahead of its time, initially providing terminal access in libraries and office buildings as early as 1988, then moving to the web in 2001.

Its network architecture and system design have not kept pace with the times. Neither has its fee structure, which was increased to $0.10 per page in September 2011. Charges are even applied to search results, where a page is defined as 4,320 bytes. I suppose one could argue it makes sense that the Administrative Office of the United States Courts should charge a nominal fee for documents which are in the public domain if you consider the cost of running and securing the service, maybe even upgrading it now and then. But that’s not what the fees are exclusively used for. In fact, PACER makes a sizable profit and some of those funds are used in a slushy way by the U.S. Courts, enabling at least one court to purchase flat screen LCDs and audio speakers installed in court benches.

What other options are out there for accessing federal case law? Open government pioneer Carl Malamud says commercial ventures such as Lexis-Nexis, West Law, and Bloomberg Law compete for a $6.5 billion market built around extracting rents from this public commons:

Countless government lawyers, public interest lawyers, and solo practitioners are quick to point out that they are priced out of the market and cannot afford access to the tools they need for their job. For the rest of us, the law truly has been locked up behind a cash register, affordable only to those who can pay the enormous price. We are a nation of laws, but the laws are not publicly available. This is a fundamental issue for democracy, for if we are a nation of laws, we must be able to consult the cases and codes of our government.

This brings to mind something important Jacob Appelbaum said the other day:

The old phrase “Ignorance of the law is no excuse” really rings hollow in an era of secret law.

The PACER system excludes a segment of the public as well as law practitioners who cannot afford access to the case law, which enforces its own form of ignorance. When Aaron Swartz met Steve Schultze in 2008 and learned about the PACER system, it seems he recognized an injustice and decided to do something about it. And as seems emblematic of what I have learned of Aaron Swartz’s ways, he outsmarted an institution with the assistance of technology. Here’s Steve Schultze’s description of meeting Aaron Swartz, the idea for a “Thumb Drive Corps” to liberate PACER documents from 16 public libraries temporarily granted free access, and Aaron Swartz’s automation of that process so he could download 2.7 million files in two days.

Steve’s post also describes the provenance of the technology underlying Aaron Greenspan’s proposed Operation Asymptote, the RECAP Firefox plugin.

I called up one of the authors [of the paper “Government Data and the Invisible Hand”], Ed Felten, and he told me to come down to Princeton to give a talk about PACER. Afterwards, two graduate students, Harlan Yu and Tim Lee, came up to me and made an interesting suggestion. They proposed a Firefox extension that anyone using PACER could install. As users paid for documents, those documents would automatically be uploaded to a public archive. As users browsed dockets, if any documents were available for free, the system would notify them of that, so that the users could avoid charges. It was a beautiful quid-pro-quo, and a way to crowdsource the PACER liberation effort in a way that would build on the existing document set.

As a result, we have the RECAP collection at The Internet Archive which as of this writing consists of 851,083 items.

Here’s the RECAP website where you can install the plugin, or browse the archive.

And here’s the next piece of the puzzle:

The Judicial Conference of the United States approved a measure in March 2010 stating that you will not owe a [PACER] fee unless your account accrues more than $10.00 of usage in a given quarter. In September 2011, this amount was increased to $15.00. If you accrue less than $15.00, your fees are waived for that quarter and your billing statement will have a zero balance. This policy change will be effective for the July 2012 statement.

So that means that any individual using PACER can download 150 pages every quarter for free. If you use the RECAP plugin while you are doing it, those pages are automatically uploaded to the Internet Archive where they become true public records without having to do anything except click on a link. Here’s the PACER registration page, where you will need a credit card to set up an account but don’t necessarily have to be charged fees.

Don’t know what to download? That’s where Aaron Greenspan’s Operation Asymptote and his public access law website PlainSite can help. As he explains in his post announcing the project, Aaron Greenspan wanted to find out all about Assistant United States Attorney Stephen P. Heymann, who played a role in prosecuting Aaron Swartz’s case. And he did. Here’s all of Heymann’s cases.

Now he wants to make “every U.S. Attorney and [Assistant U.S. Attorney]’s full career as a prosecutor available to the public to examine in its entirety.” So those are the links queued up in Operation Asymptote. Register with PACER, start Firefox w/ RECAP installed, navigate to the Operation Asymptote site, and begin clicking links till you reach $15 in charges, which you won’t be charged for.

That’s what you might call poetic justice.

Last week, I attended the monthly meeting for Open Austin, a group which has been around for several years promoting better governance through open technologies. I’m writing to draw attention to their recent successes and increasing importance to the City of Austin.

There’s an interesting history to be written about the formation of Open Austin in response to the City’s website redesign project, it’s evolution through the #gov20 era, and its steady accrual of the respect of City Council through engagement in the formalized processes of civic governance. This is not that history. This is a call to come on out and find out what’s happening in this area.

Tonight is your first chance, as Open Austin is hosting the first of what is likely to become a monthly hackathon at HubAustin in South Austin. Come join us for some civic hacking tonight!

Follow @OpenAustin on Twitter and The Facebook. And most importantly, their Google Group for email communication. Find out about all of their upcoming events (there are many) by subscribing to their calendar here.

EFF Austin Convenes
EFF Austin Convenes

EFF Austin is about as ready as we can be to start up monthly meetings again. That’s the kind of frank honesty we’d like to cultivate when it comes to all of our activities. We’re a volunteer-run organization and all of the board members are very busy individually – as are the folks on our discussion email list and those interested in meeting up. After much reflection, the board feels that convening and information sharing is the most important function we can perform at this time. There are unprecedented efforts underway to encroach on hard-earned civil liberties online and disrupt the structure and function of the Internet. So we’re not as concerned about simulating professionalism in event organizing, and more concerned about providing a forum for people to come together and connect.

Towards that end, we want to encourage your participation and solicit your help. This coming Tuesday May 8th, we’ll re-inaugurate our monthly meetups from 6-8pm at the ATX Hackerspace. After the Bruce Sterling event, the good folks at the Hackerspace were kind enough to welcome EFF Austin to host meetings there on 2nd Tuesdays. That works out very well for both organizations as there is natural overlap in our memberships. It’s especially satisfying as ATX Hackerspace opens their doors to potential new members on Tuesdays from 8-11pm. So you can come to the EFF Austin meetup—which will naturally pique your curiosity about the amazing space and community—and then stay afterwards to get a full tour of the facilities and learn how to become a member. Definitely check out their flatbed laser cutter and 3D printers!

After discussion on the board and conversations with the EFFatx community, we’ve come up with the following meeting structure. This is open to revision as we learn what works best for everyone, so consider this a starting point.

  1. Welcome – 5 minutes by EFFatx staff.
  2. Ignite/Lightning/Pecha Kucha Format Talks – 20 minutes; 3-5 minutes each on any subject of relevance to the group; slides or no slides; here’s your chance to let folks know what you’re interested in and direct attention to the latest events; sign up in advance or on the spot.
  3. Legislative Update (Local, State, National, Int’l) – 10 minute survey and discussion of the legislation EFFatx staff is tracking; we’d love to open this up to hear reports but will need to work on the best format – might be better integrated w/ Lightning talks?
  4. Speaker 1 – 30 minutes; speaker and subject to be arranged in advance; get in touch with us if you would like to present, we’re always looking for folks interested in talking.
  5. Break – 5-10 minutes.
  6. Door Prizes – we have swag you want; happy to work with organizations or individuals who have swag to donate.
  7. Speaker 2 – 30 minutes; speaker and subject to be arranged in advance.
  8. Conclusion – final calls to action and encouragement to explore the ATX Hackerspace.

So you might be wondering what our first meeting will cover? Frankly – so am I! In other words, if you’re ready to go with a subject for one of our talks or ignite sessions, step up. Otherwise, volunteer at the meeting and EFFatx staff will fill in the slots. If called on, we’d probably cover CISPA and the litany of dangerous cybersecurity legislation in one of the talks, and perhaps use the second one for some meta-level reflection on our meeting structure and solicitation for future talks. I’d also like to discuss my desire to integrate remote participants into the meeting format. We live in a connected world and the issues we are confronting are often global in scope. We want to bring remote speakers and participants into the discourse, and consider that fundamental to our process of convening. We think that shift in thinking alone portends good things for the issues that EFF Austin focuses on, and the imperative we feel to get like minds better organized.

So pipe up if you would like to help out, and we hope to see you on Tuesday May 8th at the ATX Hackerspace. Remember: 2nd Tuesdays at ATX Hackerspace.