Keeping “Free Law” Free

Who should pay to store and distribute the litigation records in US federal courts? The answer is surprisingly contentious – and, by all indications, getting more so.

When the general public wants to read documents in US federal litigation, the standard method is PACER – the federal courts’ electronic record system. One might think this would be free to access – an efficient information system run from a few web servers with no significant incremental cost per document copied. But PACER dates back to 1989, when information was provided by modem with genuine costs for courts to obtain and provide dial-up hardware, not to mention servers and storage. Thus a tradition of charging — a tradition which has continued, now yielding fees of $0.10 per page. That sounds low, and it is… until a big session, perhaps looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, requires browsing hundreds or even thousands of documents at corresponding expense. Meanwhile, with a fee for every page, PACER tells users that the meter is always running and browsing should be done lightly if at all – inconsistent with some readers’ preference to explore unfettered. Certain readers are distinctively at risk. For example, journalists often have limited budgets. For some pro se litigants, virtually any expense is unaffordable. Others are conducting research outside the country or are undocumented, unbanked, or for other reasons have no United States debit or credit card to use for payment.

In principle, litigation might put a check on public record expenses. Following up on a 2014 lawsuit, several non-profits sued the United States in 2016 as to PACER fees, alleging that the E-Government Act of 2002 allows only “reasonable” fees and then “only to the extent necessary.” The plaintiffs argue that PACER charges are higher, are not necessary, and indeed yield revenues that courts divert to other projects. For example, Quartz reports the federal courts spending 28% of PACER revenue on other court technology, such as monitors and sound systems — meritorious, no doubt, yet not obviously related to distributing court documents. Litigation is ongoing. But the disposition of the 2014 lawsuit gives reason to doubt the effectiveness of litigation to constrain PACER fees. For one, a sitting federal judge has every reason to defer to colleagues sitting on the Judicial Council (the body of judges that sets the PACER fee schedule). Indeed, any reduction in PACER fees would deprive the judicial branch of one of its primary revenue sources — a particular challenge if judges believe that Congress does not adequately fund the courts.

In the short run, the most promising response to PACER fees is RECAP, a browser plug-in that lets users share what they read on PACER. The idea is simple and elegant: Whenever a RECAP user reads a document on PACER, the RECAP plug-in sends a copy to RECAP’s servers which in turn store it for others to read free of charge. RECAP has used this approach since 2009, when it began as a graduate student project at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP). RECAP later grew with funding from non-profits and the Think Computer Foundation, as well as smaller monetary and in-kind donations from a variety of other groups and legal startups. There have been technical glitches, but on the whole the system has worked well.

A surprise development came in November 2017 when the Free Law Project (FLP), the operator of RECAP ever since the original Princeton team graduated and disbanded, announced major changes in how RECAP-collected data will be distributed in the future. Under the new plan, rather than making all RECAP-collected documents available to the public on the Internet Archive (IA) as soon as possible, FLP would hold the documents until the end of each quarter for a batch update to IA. FLP also proposed to upload litigation materials to IA in only machine-readable formats compressed into enormous multi-gigabyte tarballs, ending the human-readable individual HTML files that have for years made it easy for normal users with standard web browsers to see court records.

FLP says these changes are “necessary for RECAP to thrive” which I understand to summarize concern about FLP funding. I’m sensitive to the need to keep RECAP sustainable. But I question whether the November 2017 changes offer the right approach. Four specific concerns:

  • One, I don’t know that RECAP’s expenses need to be particularly high. Open source software development often does not entail paying developers anything at all. With the right motivation including public praise, some people may be inclined to donate their skills. Certainly RECAP needs new features and improvements from time to time, but most such improvements should last indefinitely once built, reducing RECAP’s ongoing expenses.
  • Two, charging for access to documents seems in sharp tension with RECAP’s promise to users. The organization’s very name — “Free Law” — calls for distributing materials not just without charge, but also without restriction. Indeed, FLP filed an amicus brief in the National Veterans Legal case stating that the FLP is a “nonprofit organization established in 2013 to provide free, public, and permanent access to primary legal materials on the internet for educational, charitable, and scientific purposes to the benefit of the general public and the public interest” (emphasis added).
  • Three, there are other promising means to support RECAP. Imagine a service that alerts interested subscribers to new documents in a given docket or referring to a given litigant or subject. Or a premium service that searches or cross-references document contents. Perhaps bulk downloads of hundreds of files en masse. RECAP could do all of this and more. If RECAP stays true to its nonprofit public-interest mission, and if its expenses remain as low as it seems like they could be, RECAP could also rely on further funding through grants, avoiding the need to try to monetize data that FLP itself calls “free” and “public.” These, in my view, are the more natural ways to fund RECAP’s operations. In contrast, charging for the documents themselves may be easier – no need to build new features – but it is too far from RECAP’s prior promises and users’ expectations, not to mention undercutting the public interest in the National Veterans Legal lawsuit.
  • Four, FLP announced the delayed data distribution as a fait accompli, not soliciting input ahead of time from the users who contribute documents and code to the RECAP plug-in. That’s a natural approach for a commercial service, and maybe appropriate for some non-profits, but hard to reconcile with the position of stewardship I had understood RECAP and FLP to aspire to.

More generally, I struggle to reconcile FLP’s changes with the organization’s non-profit status and with its overall position favoring free and unrestricted access to court documents.

A final twist is that FLP has already arranged for only its own CourtListener site to get premium access to RECAP’s documents as they are gathered by users and uploaded by the RECAP plug-in. FLP envisions that other sites and the public will get access only once per quarter unless they pay an undisclosed fee. Indeed, a few sites have sprung up to collect RECAP-gathered court records, repackage them in some way, and distribute them to the interested public. It’s hard to see a principled reason why only CourtListener should get superior and more frequent access to the documents. They’re public documents, gathered by the US courts themselves, and then submitted for public archival by participating users who support the “Free Law” RECAP concept. Nothing in users’ or donors’ understanding or their agreement with RECAP calls for RECAP providing the documents to only one site but not others.

Tensions have been brewing, including a pointed critique from Aaron Greenspan (whose PlainSite service is among the victims if RECAP begins to withhold data from other services), as well as Internet Archive staff questioning the purpose and effect of the proposed changes. But getting this right requires more users speaking up about what they want from RECAP and what they expect of its leadership. For myself, I want a RECAP that lives up to the principles articulated in 2009 — gather court documents and distribute them without charge or restriction.

(Added January 25, 2018) On Github, user @johnhawkinson pointed out the FLP is still posting RECAP data to CourtListener, and indeed indicates that it will continue to do so promptly (even though IA uploads are to be delayed). Indeed. And at present, no CourtListener TOS limits how users access the site; it seems users could download thousands of documents for their own purposes, even scrape the site and its contents if that better matches their requirements. Kudos to CL for not banning (or purporting to ban) those methods. Yet favoring CourtListener, rather than the authoritative and widely-trusted, seems to me a troubling change. FLP’s stated reason for putting data only on CL, and not promptly on IA, is to make the service “sustainable” which I take to mean an effort to raise funds, which in turn entails withholding features or data (or both) from those who don’t pay. And FLP is already asking for payments from those sites that seek full access to bulk RECAP data. Such restrictions and charges are exactly what RECAP’s historic mission did not contemplate or indeed allow.

From the Digital to the Physical: Federal Limitations on Regulating Online Marketplaces with Abbey Stemler

Edelman, Benjamin, and Abbey Stemler. “From the Digital to the Physical: Federal Limitations on Regulating Online Marketplaces.” Harvard Journal on Legislation (forthcoming).


Online marketplaces have transformed how we shop, travel, and interact with the world. Yet, their unique innovations also present a panoply of challenges for communities and states. Surprisingly, federal laws are chief among those challenges despite the fact that online marketplaces facilitate transactions traditionally regulated at the local level. In this paper, we survey the federal laws that frame the situation, especially §230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a 1996 law largely meant to protect online platforms from defamation lawsuits. The CDA has been stretched beyond recognition to prevent all manner of prudent regulation. We offer specific suggestions to correct this misinterpretation to assure that state and local governments can appropriately respond to the digital activities that impact physical realities.

Informal introduction:

Perhaps the most beloved twenty-six words in tech law, §230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 has been heralded as a “masterpiece” and the “law that gave us the modern Internet.” It was originally designed to protect online companies from defamation claims for third-party speech (think message boards and AOL chat rooms), but over the years §230 has been used to protect online firms from all kinds of regulation—including civil rights and consumer protection laws. As a result, it is now the first line of defense for online marketplaces seeking to avoid state and local regulation.

In our new working paper, Abbey Stemler and I challenge existing interpretations of §230 and highlight how it and other federal laws interfere with state and local government’s ability to regulate online marketplaces—particularly those that dramatically shape our physical realties, such as Uber and Airbnb. §230 is sacred to many, but as Congress considers revising §230 and Courts continually reassess its interpretation, we hope our paper will encourage a richer discussion about the duties of online marketplaces.

The Market Design and Policy of Online Review Platforms

Edelman, Benjamin. “The Market Design and Policy of Online Review Platforms.” Oxford Review of Economic Policy 33, no. 4 (Winter 2017): 635-649.

I present the institutions and incentives of online reviews, including attracting initial reviews, assuring truthful reviews of genuine experiences, and avoiding inflated or deceptive reviews. I also explore the competition and consumer protection concerns associated with reviews.

Impact of OTA Bias and Consolidation on Consumers

Online travel agencies (“OTAs,” such as Expedia and Priceline) charge hotels fees that can reach 25% or even more. In today’s post, I assess the causes of these fees as well as the tactics OTAs have used to punish hotels that object — penalizing hotels that discount through other channels, while simultaneously boosting those that agree to pay more. With Expedia and Priceline (including the many other companies they have acquired) jointly controlling 95% of the OTA market, competitive forces impose limited discipline on OTA practices.

My bottom line: OTA practices drive up costs to both hotels and consumers. At the very least, OTAs need improved disclosure of both bias and advertising. Meanwhile, it’s hard to defend OTAs’ efforts to punish hotels that sought cheaper distribution elsewhere. The time is right for the FTC and state attorneys general to examine this market.

My full article:

Impact of OTA Bias and Consolidation on Consumers

Uber Can’t Be Fixed — It’s Time for Regulators to Shut It Down

Edelman, Benjamin G. “Uber Can’t Be Fixed — It’s Time for Regulators to Shut It Down.” Harvard Business Review (digital) (June 21, 2017). (Translations: Japanese, Russian.)

From many passengers’ perspective, Uber is a godsend — lower fares than taxis, clean vehicles, courteous drivers, easy electronic payments. Yet the company’s mounting scandals reveal something seriously amiss, culminating in last week’s stern report from former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Some people attribute the company’s missteps to the personal failings of founder-CEO Travis Kalanick. These have certainly contributed to the company’s problems, and his resignation is probably appropriate. Kalanick and other top executives signal by example what is and is not acceptable behavior, and they are clearly responsible for the company’s ethically and legally questionable decisions and practices.

But I suggest that the problem at Uber goes beyond a culture created by toxic leadership. The company’s cultural dysfunction, it seems to me, stems from the very nature of the company’s competitive advantage: Uber’s business model is predicated on lawbreaking. And having grown through intentional illegality, Uber can’t easily pivot toward following the rules.

Passenger Right to Record at Airports and on Airplanes?

Passengers have every reason to record airline staff and onboard events–documenting onboard disputes (such as whether a passenger is in fact disruptive or a service animal disobedient), service deficiencies (perhaps a broken seat or inoperational screen), and controversial remarks from airline personnel (like statements of supposed rules, which not match actual contract provisions). For the largest five US airlines, no contract provision–general tariff, conditions of carriage, or fare rules–prohibits such recordings. Yet airline staff widely tell passengers that they may not record–citing “policies” passengers couldn’t reasonably know and certainly didn’t agree to in the usual contract sense. (For example, United’s policy is a web page not mentioned in the online purchase process. American puts its anti-recording policy in its inflight magazine, where passengers only learn it once onboard.) If passengers refuse to comply, airline staff have threatened all manner of sanctions including denial of transport and arrest. In one incident in July 2016, a Delta gate agent even assaulted a 12-year-old passenger who was recording her remarks.

In a Petition for Rulemaking filed this week with the US Department of Transportation, Mike Borsetti and I ask DOT to affirm that passengers have the right to record what they lawfully see and hear on and around aircraft. We explain why such recordings are in the public interest, and we present the troubling experiences of passengers who have tried to record but have been punished for doing so. We conclude with specific proposed provisions to protect passenger rights.

One need not look far to see the impact of passenger recordings. When United summoned security officers who assaulted passenger David Dao, who had done nothing worse than peacefully remain in the seat he had paid for, five passenger recordings provided the crucial proof to rebut the officers’ false claim that Dao was “swinging his arms up and down with a closed fist,” then “started flailing and fighting” as he was removed (not to mention United CEO Oscar Munoz’s false contention that Dao was “disruptive and belligerent”). Dao and the interested public are fortunate that video disproved these allegations. But imagine if United had demanded that other passengers onboard turn off their cameras before security officers boarded, or delete their recordings afterward and prove that they had done so, all consistent with passengers experiences we report in our Petition for Rulemaking. Had United made such demands, the false allegations would have gone unchallenged and justice would not have been done. Hence our insistence that recordings are proper even–indeed, especially–without the permission of the airline staff, security officers, and others who are recorded.

Our filing:

Petition for Rulemaking: Passenger Right to Record

DOT docket with public comment submission form

Enumerating Uber’s Scandals

Collecting my thoughts for an article about Uber’s mounting scandals and the proper legal and regulatory response, I took some time to review the range of recent concerns. It’s overwhelming — new issues arising daily, and prior problems almost inevitably forgotten. But by dividing the misdeeds into a taxonomy of subject areas, I’m seeing trends — identifying the areas where Uber falls furthest short. I offer my notes to others in hopes that they can help.

My tabulation:

Uber Scandals

David Dao on United Airlines (teaching materials)

Edelman, Benjamin, and Jenny Sanford. “David Dao on United Airlines.” Harvard Business School Case 917-026, May 2017. (educator access at HBP. request a courtesy copy.)

In widely circulated videos, United staff and Chicago security forcibly remove a passenger from his paid seat on an aircraft, injuring him severely. United leadership must decide how to respond to public outcry.

Teaching Materials:

David Dao on United Airlines – Teaching Note (HBP 917027)

Racial Discrimination in the Sharing Economy: Evidence from a Field Experiment

Edelman, Benjamin, Michael Luca, and Daniel Svirsky. “Racial Discrimination in the Sharing Economy: Evidence from a Field Experiment.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 9, no. 2 (April 2017): 1-22.

In an experiment on Airbnb, we find that applications from guests with distinctively African-American names are 16% less likely to be accepted relative to identical guests with distinctively White names. Discrimination occurs among landlords of all sizes, including small landlords sharing the property and larger landlords with multiple properties. It is most pronounced among hosts who have never had an African-American guest, suggesting only a subset of hosts discriminate. While rental markets have achieved significant reductions in discrimination in recent decades, our results suggest that Airbnb’s current design choices facilitate discrimination and raise the possibility of erasing some of these civil rights gains.