I thought I’d mentioned this at the time it happened, but I apparently didn’t. Last month, the court records database PACER deleted ten years’ worth of electronic federal court documents in the course of a hardware update. This sparked an immediate backlash from lawmakers. Now Ars Technica reports that the US government Administrative Office of the Courts will return most of those files to the database by the end of October.
It’s nice that they’re doing the right thing, but the shortcomings of the PACER system are aggravating. The system charges ten cents per downloaded page, including for lists of the documents themselves, which can get expensive for long-running cases such as the DoJ/publishers/Apple e-book anti-trust trial. (I ran up $41 in PACER charges earlier this year just from covering that story.) In this era of cheap high-speed Internet, charging so much is ridiculous—that’s more than it would cost you to photocopy a page at a FedEx Office.
Of course, those public records are technically in the public domain, which means that once you download them you can do anything you want with them up to and including rehosting them yourself. That’s what a system called RECAP, developed by the late Aaron Swartz, does; any PACER document viewed by someone using RECAP is automatically uploaded to its repository on the Internet Archive and readable for free thereafter.
Unfortunately, RECAP records are by and large limited to the ones that people using RECAP found interesting enough to retrieve from PACER already. For example, when I checked the Apple case records just now, I found that anti-trust monitor Michael Bromwich’s 77-page compliance report, issued in April, still hadn’t been RECAPped, nor had the (rather entertaining) 42-page transcript of a May 9th conference before the magistrate judge in which Apple complained about the bill. (They both have now, though. You’re welcome.)
Still, when someone using RECAP is curious enough to delve, that at least can save a little money for folks who come later.