Aaron Swartz used a free trial of the government’s Pacer system to download 19,856,160 pages of documents in a campaign to place the information free online.
Americans have grown accustomed to finding just about anything they want online fast, and free. But for those searching for federal court decisions, briefs and other legal papers, there is no Google.
Instead, there is Pacer, the government-run Public Access to Court Electronic Records system designed in the bygone days of screechy telephone modems. Cumbersome, arcane and not free, it is everything that Google is not.
Screechy telephone modems? I remember those days: 300 baud transmission rates. Loading files was slow, really s-l-o-w.
Recently, however, a small group of dedicated open-government activists teamed up to push the court records system into the 21st century — by simply grabbing enormous chunks of the database and giving the documents away, to the great annoyance of the government.
It's our data.
“Pacer is just so awful,” said Carl Malamud, the leader of the effort and founder of a nonprofit group, Public.Resource.org. “The system is 15 to 20 years out of date.”
15 years is an eternity in computing terms.