Tag Archives: Brian Knappenberger

Aaron’s PACER Project Explained

Here’s a clip from the film “The Internet’s Own Boy”  – Directed by Brian Knappenberger – which explains the PACER project in more detail. [This is background for our Q & A Event on January 11th]

Clip on the Internet Archive

Clip on YouTube

PACER is the name of the website that lawyers use to retrieve legal documents from current and past court cases. These documents make up the precedents that make up “the law,” yet to access documents on PACER you must have a credit card and pay per page. (Costing a dime or more for *each* page, so you can see how it can add up quickly. )

You can understand why this “pay to see the law” system could present a problem for anyone who doesn’t have a credit card or is unfamiliar with the details of legal proceedings.

Aaron learned of a program which enabled free access to PACER via a small group of libraries across the country, and coordinated with a friend to download millions of PACER documents.

The FBI didn’t like it, and investigated him for a while, including surveillance at his parent’s home. But ultimately it had to let it go, because Aaron hadn’t actually done anything illegal.

Below is a transcription of the PACER Section of “The Internet’s Own Boy (Directed by Brian Knappenberger)

Brewster Kahle – Founder, Internet Archive:

“How can you bring public access to the public domain? It may sound obvious that you would have public access to the public domain, but in fact, it’s not true. So, the public domain should be free to all, but it’s often locked up. There’s often guard cages. It’s like having a National Park but with a moat around it and gun turrets pointed out, in case somebody might want to come and actually enjoy the Public Domain.

One of the things Aaron was particularly interested in was bringing public access to the public domain. It was one of the things that got him into so much trouble.”

Stephen Shultze – Former Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard:

“I had been trying to get access to Federal Court records in the United States. What I discovered was a puzzling system, called PACER, which stands for “Public Access to Court Electronic Records.

I started Googling and that’s when I ran across Carl Malamud.”

Narrative: “Access to legal materials in the United States is a 10 billion dollar per year business.”

Carl Malamud – Founder, Public.Resource.org

“PACER is just this incredible abomination of government services. Ten cents a page. It’s this most brain dead code you’ve ever seen. You can’t search it. You can’t bookmark anything. You’ve gotta have a credit card. And these are “public records.”

U.S. District Courts are very important. That’s where a lot of our seminal legislation starts. Civil Rights cases. Patent cases. All sorts of stuff. And journalists and students and citizens and lawyers all need access to PACER and it fights em every step of the way.

People without means can’t see the law as readily as people with that American Express card. It’s a poll tax on access to justice.”

Tim O’Reilly, Publisher

“The law is the operating system of our democracy, and you have to pay to see it? That’s not much of a democracy.”

Stephen Shultze: “They make about 120 million dollars a year on the PACER system and it doesn’t cost anything near that, according to their own records.

In fact, it’s illegal. The E-government Act of 2002 states that the courts may charge “only to the extent necessary” in order to reimburse the costs of running pacer.”

Narrator: “As the founder of Public.Resource.org, Malamud wanted to protest the PACER charges.

He started a program called “The PACER Recycling Project.” People could upload documents they had already paid for to a free database, so others could use them.”

Carl Malamud: “The PACER people were getting a lot of flack from congress and others about public access. And so they put together this system in seventeen (17) libraries across the country, there was free PACER access. That’s one library every 22,000 square miles I believe. So it wasn’t like really convenient.

I encouraged volunteers to join the “thumb drive core” and download docs from the public access libraries and upload them to the PACER recycling site. People take a thumb drive into one of these libraries and they download a bunch of documents and then send em to me. And it was just a joke. In fact if you clicked on “thumb drive core,” the Wizard of Oz, ya know, the munchkins singing, video clip came up.

But of course, I get this phone call from Steve Shultze and Aaron saying “Gee, we’d like to join the Thumb Drive Core.”

Stephen Shultze: “Around that time, I ran into Aaron at a conference. So I approached him and said “hey, I’m thinking about doing an intervention on the PACER problem.”

Narrator: “Shultze had already developed a program that could automatically download PACER documents from the trial libraries. Swartz wanted to take a look.”

Stephen Shultze: “So, I showed him the code. And I didn’t know what would come next, but as it turns out, over the next few hours at that conference. He was off sitting in a corner, improving my code, recruiting a friend of his that lived near one of these libraries to go into the library and to begin testing his improved code, and at some point the folks at the court realized something’s not going quite according to plan.”

Carl Malamud: “And data started to come in, and come in, and come in. Soon there were 760 GB of PACER docs. About 20 million pages.”

Narrator: “Using information retrieved from the trial libraries, Swartz was conducting massive automated parallel downloading of the PACER system. He was able to acquire more than 2.7 million Federal Court Documents. Almost 20 million pages of text.

Carl Malamud: “Now, I’ll grant you that 20 million pages perhaps exceeded the expectations of the people running the pilot access project, but surprising a bureaucrat isn’t illegal.”

Aaron & Carl decided to talk to the New York Times about what happened.

They also got the attention of the FBI, who began to stake out Swartz’ parents’ house in Illinois.

Carl Malamud: “I get a tweet from his mother saying ‘Call me!’ And I’m like what the hell’s going on here? So, I finally got a hold of Aaron, and Aaron’s mother is like ‘oh my god FBI, FBI, FBI’ ”

Noah Swartz

Noah Swartz: “An FBI agent drives down our home’s driveway trying to see if Aaron is like, in his room. And I remember being home that day and wondering why this car was driving down our driveway and just driving back out. That’s weird. Like five years later I read the FBI file and I’m like my goodness – that was the FBI agent, in my driveway.”

Carl Malamud: “He (Aaron) was terrified. He was totally terrified. He was way more terrified after the FBI actually called him up on the phone and tried to sucker him in to coming down to a coffee shop without a lawyer. He said he went home and laid down on the bed, and was shaking.

Narrator: The downloading also uncovered massive privacy violations in the court documents. Ultimately, the courts were forced to change their policies as a result.

And the FBI closed their investigation without bringing charges.

Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow: “To this day, I find it remarkable that anybody, even at the most remote podunct field office of the FBI, thought that a fitting use for taxpayer dollars was investigating people for theft on the grounds that they had made the law public. How can you call yourself a “law man,” and think there can possibly be anything wrong in this whole world with making the law public.”

Discussing Aaron’s Suicide: Q and A at Aaron Swartz Day 2014

brian
Trevor Timm, John Perry Barlow, Brian Knappenberger, and Lisa Rein, during the Q & A panel, after a special screening of “The Internet’s Own Boy” in the Internet Archive’s Great Room, at Aaron Swartz Day, November 8, 2014.

Audio clip:

Link to full Aaron Swartz Day 2014 Video.
The transcript below has been edited slightly for readability.

Lisa: Brian, when you were making this movie, and you had lots and lots of footage, how did you go about deciding which story you were actually gonna tell? One of the things that people who are not familiar with the story sometimes say to me, when they see your film for the first time, is that they are curious about the way that you handled the suicide at the end.

For me, it made sense, because, one thing that I think a lot of us could agree on, when we talked about it, after he died, was that it *didn’t* really make sense. He had had bouts with depression, from time to time, like a lot of people, but it wasn’t really anything that anyone was expecting, or that anyone could go “oh, we knew that was gonna happen,” or, “we were afraid that was going to happen” — that sort of thing.

I liked the way you sort of got that across in the film. How did you decide how you were gonna treat that issue? It was very sad at the end, but you definitely decided not to dwell on it.

Brian: Yeah. I mean, so much was written about Aaron, right after he died. And some of it, at least, had to do with depression or speculating on the role that it might of played in his death. So, I certainly, read everything. I mean, before we even started filming – when I was still in the early stages, I tried to read everybody’s take on it. A lot of people were doing first hand accounts and stuff, but the New Yorker did a piece that was almost exclusively focused on that issue.  And so I decided to take it, and basically just ask the people who were closest to him and try to understand what role it played.

The conclusion I came to is that, Taren, who lived with him during the last years of his life, she doesn’t believe that he suffered from that. Or, that he may have had something like that in his early 20s, but not when she lived with him. His brothers and other people close to him describe a kind of sensitivity, of carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders; the need to want to fix everything, almost. And so I just kind of weighted, based on what I found. I think that’s the short answer.

I think some of that was letting the government off the hook, in some ways. That’s just the conclusion that I came to. That assigning too much to “depression,” was a way of sort of distracting from this two year legal nightmare that would have certainly put anybody in a difficult position.

Lisa: Right. As if it was something where, he could have had a bad day, and done anyway, and not something that he was driven to from the situation. I guess that’s what bothered me too, when people talked about the depression, and they left out the whole part about the relentless, daily persecution by this case on his life.

Brian: Yeah, I mean, people go through worse and don’t take their own life, obviously. So, it was just something that I thought a lot about. I basically proceeded by talking to people who were close to him and trying to understand who he was, and what role that played, and I think I got some pretty candid, and pretty honest answers about that.

John Perry: I don’t have reason to say this, but I’m gonna say it anyway. It occurs to me, even though I know that Aaron Swartz would’ve been a truly extraordinary force in the world, had he lived. I’m not certain that he would’ve been the extraordinary force in the world that he became by dying when he did, and I’m not certain that he didn’t know that. It’s not out of the question in my mind that he made a strategic and very hard decision to allow himself to be a martyr to this cause at this particular point.

Lisa: I thought of that too, except that one would say that making a pragmatic decision about the timing of taking your life isn’t necessarily a sane decision to make.

john perry

Screening in Los Angeles with Q & A with Brian Knappenberger Afterwards

To do in LA: screening and Q&A with director of Aaron Swartz doc, “The Internet’s Own Boy”

AARON_LIBRARY_PHOTO

If you’re in Los Angeles this evening, please join me at a special screening of the documentary about the late Aaron Swartz, “The Internet’s Own Boy.” The film has been shortlisted for an Academy Award. After the screening, I will host a question and answer session with the film’s director, Brian Knappenberger.

RSVP here.

WHEN: Tonight, January 5, 2015. Film starts promptly at 730pm. Get there by 7.

WHERE: Annenberg Space for Photography Skylight Studios, 10050 Constellation Boulevard, Los Angeles (Century City), CA 90067. Self-Parking in Garage Underneath. $1.00 with validation.

 

 

 

‘Inspiration for people, threat to US govt’ – Aaron Swartz film director to RT

Aaron RT2‘Inspiration for people, threat to US govt’ – Aaron Swartz film director to RT

November 9, 2014   for RT

Download link to video piece that goes with this article.

From the interview:

RT: Aaron Swartz was basically driven to suicide for standing up to the government for what he believes in. Do you think his fate will put others off following in his footsteps?

Brian Knappenberger: No. I mean I think that treatment of Aaron Swartz was awful and it was outrageous. But I actually think that if it was meant to be a kind of persecution to put people off of this kind of behavior, I think it backfired. If it was meant as deterrence, or it was meant to make an example, as the prosecution said to Aaron’s dad and to Aaron’s council, I think that effort, probably, backfired.

People are inspired, looked at what he did and are inspired by it. I don’t think that the legal efforts against him actually would put off future Aarons. And if anything they’ll inspire them.