For digital document fans, the government’s PACER legal document retrieval system has long been a bone of contention. It charges ten cents per page for document retrieval, which can run into a considerable degree of expense when it comes to documents dozens of pages long—you basically have to pay to download it even to read enough of it know if it’s the document you actually want. (The fee is capped at $3 per single document but that can still run into significant sums.) As I noted a couple of years ago, I ran up $41 in PACER charges just while covering a story for TeleRead.
Ars Technica has a story about a class action lawsuit brought by three nonprofits against PACER, claiming that the proceeds of all those document payments are being misappropriated. PACER is authorized by law to charge fees necessary “to reimburse expenses in providing these services,” but the suit holds that millions of dollars in PACER proceeds have been used to pay for other projects instead. As it turns out, PACER was bringing in much more money than it needed.
“Rather than reduce the fees to cover only the costs incurred, the AO instead decided to use the extra revenue to subsidize other information-technology-related projects—a mission creep that only grew worse over time,” the suit (PDF) claims. Citing government records, the suit says that by the end of 2006, the judiciary’s information-technology fund had accumulated a surplus of $150 million with $32 million from PACER fees [PDF]. When fees were increased to 10 cents a page in 2012, the amount of income from PACER increased to $145 million, “much of which was earmarked for other purposes such as courtroom technology, websites for jurors, and bankruptcy notification systems,” according to the suit.
PACER also declined to provide a four-month fee exemption to journalists who needed to check the records to run an analysis of how effective certain legal software was. Effectively, PACER comes off as fairly greedy given how simple digital documents are to store and retrieve.
That’s why the late Aaron Swartz helped develop an alternate document retrieval system called RECAP, which automatically uploads pages downloaded from PACER to its servers so people can read them for free thereafter. It saves a lot of people a lot of money, but can only be updated one document at a time as PACER users pay to download them.
If PACER is making so much money that it’s able to run at a surplus, it seems that its retrieval fees should be cut back to something more reasonable. There’s no reason citizens should need to pay inflated rates to retrieve documents that are legally in the public domain.