Washington's I.T. Guy

Shortly after Barack Obama's election, as progressive activists and Democratic operatives were jockeying for positions large and small within the new administration, Carl Malamud launched a quixotic campaign for an appointment as the director of the U.S. Government Printing Office. The public printer's task, historically, has been to compile and distribute to the American people the considerable amount of information produced each day by the federal government.

Malamud, who has made a career of exploring and developing the transformative technology of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries, was eager to convert the job of public printer, which traces its roots to Benjamin Franklin, into an Internet-age publisher. He started a campaign for an appointment under the slogan "Yes We Scan." Rep. Ed Markey, highly regarded in the tech world, wrote a glowing letter to President Obama that described Malamud as "the best qualified individual" for the post. And members of Congress received full-color books that collected supportive "tweets."

Although Malamud says he went on three White House interviews for the post, he was unable to win the support of the leaders of the congressional committees who oversee the GPO. But lack of an official title hasn't stopped Malamud from pursuing his open-government goals. "If called, I will certainly serve. But if not called, I will probably serve anyway," he told The New York Times last February.

Malamud has taken it upon himself to see that all public information -- from court decisions to financial disclosures to Army training tapes -- is actually, well, public. Malamud, 51, has worked as a network administrator, run technology startups, and taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab and in Japan. He has written for Wired and Computerworld, and on one memorable day in the early 1990s, he hooked up the first White House Internet connection. Since 2007 he has devoted himself -- and his bank account -- to using technology to open the government to the people. He's the sole employee of an organization, Public.Resource.org, dedicated to that purpose.

These days Malamud lives just outside of Sebastopol, a small town near San Francisco. When I met him in January, he was in New York City to make a presentation at Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy about his latest project, a proposed government-run online platform that would allow anyone to easily access all of the laws in the United States, from towns and cities all the way up to the federal level. Nearly everyone I'd talked to in Washington described Malamud as tireless, and he quickly proved them right. We talked nonstop for two hours.

The work of freeing government information often carries the connotation of exposing secrets about nefarious policies or officials' bad behavior. Malamud, a technologist through and through, approaches it from a different angle, one that can be more palatable to the political class. His art is in figuring out how to free documents that aren't restricted by secrecy but by the fact that the government has failed to put them online. The conventional wisdom about making all such information publicly available is that it would be too difficult, too invasive, too expensive. Malamud has made it his monumental task to disprove that. It's a simple idea: If those materials affect people's lives, they can and should be easily and freely accessible. Citizens must be empowered to see how the government machine works, and especially in the Internet era, there's no excuse for keeping them in the dark.

Given Obama's reputation as a our most tech-savvy president to date, and one whose election was due, in part, to online organizing, Malamud is betting that he can get this administration to see the wisdom in open-source government. His success or failure will speak volumes about whether Washington will reap the benefits of the Internet age -- or whether the current celebration of technology culture will simply fade away.

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Malamud's battle to get government information online is almost as old as the Internet itself. In the early days of the World Wide Web, he ran the nonprofit Internet Multicasting Service ("the first radio station on the Internet"). From his office in the National Press Building in Washington, D.C., he broadcast everything from House and Senate floor debates to United Nations ceremonies, along with the occasional reading of the works of T.S. Eliot. At the time, Congress was pushing the Securities and Exchange Commission to publish online the financial disclosure forms required from corporations so that everyone had access to the information. The documents weren't secret; Wall Street had easy access to them through paid services. But the SEC complained that putting the corporate disclosures online would cost $40 million and that too few Americans on the budding Internet would be interested in the data.

In 1994, Malamud received a grant from the National Science Foundation and put the financial information online himself for a fraction of what the SEC claimed it would cost. After 18 months, the online service, known as EDGAR, had skyrocketed in popularity, and Malamud seized the moment. He challenged the SEC to take over the site, putting up a note that read "This Service Will Terminate in 60 Days." The SEC balked, citing a lack of computers and in-house expertise. So Malamud and allies loaned the commission some basic servers, tape drives, and monitors. "We put the computers in the station wagon and drove down to the SEC," Malamud says. "We configured their T1 line and got them up and running." The SEC's EDGAR database is still online and remains an invaluable resource for everyone from high-rollers and journalists to students and senior-citizen investment clubs.

One top Democratic Hill staffer describes Malamud as having "a lot of '80s punk in him mixed with DIY." Indeed, his do-it-yourself style often doesn't look very D.C. His website features a "Seal of Approval" -- as in, a smiling cartoon seal. He likes to have friends and colleagues take their picture with a cardboard version of the seal. A program for recycling court records features an animated trash can. His joint project with the Commerce Department -- in which he converts VHS tapes of old government movies to digital and posts a copy on YouTube -- is called FedFlix, a reference to the movies-by-mail service NetFlix ("Carl likes to name things," says one Democratic leadership staffer). Many of the 1,900 films Malamud has freed are, well, deeply weird. One Army training film features a female officer lecturing an underling on what a smart fashion choice miniskirts can be.

Other projects include taking several thousand photographs that the Smithsonian claimed copyright on, determining that they were in the public domain, and posting them on the photo-sharing site Flickr. He wrangled with the heavily subsidized broadcaster C-SPAN to put congressional proceedings online without copyright restrictions. His work is imbued with a spirit of whimsy and a history buff's appreciation for all things government. But of his reputation as a gadfly, he says, "I hate that label. I take a thousand DVDs and rip them and put them online. That's not a gadfly thing."

"People are very confused when they first encounter Carl. They try to figure out what his angle is. They think he's trying to get funding," says Andrew McLaughlin, the deputy chief technology officer at the White House and a former Google exec. "Instead, he says, 'Give me a terabyte of data.'" If you think of politics as transactional, the Malmudian equation doesn't make a lot of sense. For one thing, freelance liberation of government information isn't exactly lucrative. When Malamud delivered a keynote speech to several hundred people at the Grand Hyatt in Washington this past September, Public.Resource.org had only $180 left in the bank.

Donations from friends in the tech realm keep his organization afloat. Google has given Malamud what he calls pity money. "They knew I was literally going bankrupt," he says. "I'd maxed out my credit cards." In 2007, the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam, made a sizable contribution to the cause. Malamud quickly spent $600,000 of it buying court records from the Federal Judiciary and putting them up online for anyone to use. It may seem crazy to execute such a feat for no electoral or financial gain, but it's the sort of thing people do pretty regularly online -- make things and give them away, hoping that other people will do cool things with them. Examples include everything from Lostpedia, the fan-written Wikipedia-style compendium on the ABC show, to Linux, the free, user-created computer operating system. Malamud just happens to think the same philosophy should apply to the federal record.

Malamud's views on technology and information were shaped by the Internet wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a pitched political battle erupted between governments, international technical bodies, and technologists over whether the development standards behind the nascent Internet would be available, for free, to anyone who wanted to help build the new network -- or whether they would only be accessible to a select few experts and at a considerable cost. For a time, it looked like the forces pushing a closed approach were winning. "It just seemed wrong," Malamud says. For one thing, he couldn't get his hands on the standards he needed for the technical guides he was writing at the time.

What emerged was a universe of simple, open, universal rules. And you know the rest of the story: an innovation revolution followed. "The open standards won," he says, "because any kid could download the rules of the game, understand how they work, and make a contribution." Technologists had fought bureaucracies all over the world -- and won. "It taught us," Malamud says, "that we can make government heel."

One way Malamud has sought to do that is with his technical expertise. When he pushed C-SPAN to post its government-video archives on the Internet, unburdened by copyright restrictions, his ability to describe concrete solutions to video -- conversion and streaming-quality challenges won over C-SPAN Co-President Rob Kennedy. "Our conversations with Carl," Kennedy says with appreciation, "are often very technical." But Malamud's technological orientation can also make bureaucratic obstacles enormously frustrating. "I'll use the word 'pure,'" Kennedy says. "He's kind of a purist about government domain," referring to the idea that the public should be able to easily see, read, and copy information that has to do with the workings of its government.

"We hold our priests to a higher standard," Malamud says. A former congressional staffer myself, I suggest to Malamud that, given Congress' limited resources, progress might be slow going. What are the options in the short term? He replies, "If they can't afford to put all the hearings online, then they should have less of them."

***

Malamud was born at the intersection of technology and government. He spent the first five years of his life in Switzerland while his father, noted physicist Ernest Malamud, worked at the famed European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN. (Malamud the younger returned to CERN in the 1990s while writing his travelogue Exploring the Internet. He was taken to see a young engineer working on an exciting project. "Interesting," Malamud recalls thinking to himself, "but it won't scale." The engineer was Tim Berners-Lee, and his invention, the World Wide Web.) In the late 1960s, Malamud's father moved the family to Illinois for a job at the Department of Energy's Fermilab. Malamud earned a bachelor's in business at Indiana University and dropped out of graduate school there with a gentleman's MBA before finishing his dissertation in order to build IU's computer lab, or as Malamud puts it, "do computers again." Three years later, after working as a computer systems analyst at the Federal Reserve Board, he enrolled at Georgetown Law, but left to start his own computer consulting practice.

Years of consulting, writing, and teaching as well as some run-ins with the current and former staff of Democratic administrations followed. While running the Internet Multicasting Service in the mid 1990s, he was called in to wire the White House. In 2005, when former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta founded a new progressive think tank, Malamud came on as chief technology officer. He was not impressed with what he found at the Center for American Progress. "It was an all-Microsoft shop," he says. "It was crawling with consultants. And it sucked." Malamud spent two years converting Podesta's think tank to open-source software built by its community of users, needling the Smithsonian for making exclusive deals with cable broadcasters, and setting up better computers.

In 2007, Malamud filed papers to incorporate Public.Resource.org. His goal was simple: to do whatever possible, from the outside, to make copies of laws, court documents, and other government materials available for free. It's a ripe field. For example, PACER, the federal court's online document service, charges 8 cents per page for access to public information. The money goes to a good cause, funding much-needed technology for district and appellate courts. In 2006, PACER generated $58 million in revenue, according to the Federal Judiciary. "I know they need the money," Malamud says. "I'm sympathetic to that. But that doesn't give them the right to claim something that's not theirs." Malamud has been working diligently to both post PACER documents that people have already paid for and get the courts to do away with the fee. In addition, he has targeted WestLaw and LexisNexis, which charge thousands of dollars for access to annotated legal proceedings.

He's also focused his attention on the state of Oregon, which has claimed copyright on its statutes, selling copies for hundreds of dollars a pop. The claim of copyright on public law is dubious, especially considering that the constitutional justification for copyright is to spur creativity and innovation. There's little threat that states are going to stop passing laws just because they can't sell copies of them. Malamud's latest victory has been buying and posting copies of building and other safety codes from all 50 states, even though very often they are marked with a copyright from one of the vendors that produces model safety codes. Justifying the gamble is a 2002 decision, Veeck v. Southern Building Code Congress Int'l Inc., that found that once something has the effect of law, it can no longer claim copyright.

Malamud is certainly willing to provoke but prefers to be sure the law is on his side. In response to his call to open PACER, a young activist, entrepreneur, and programmer named Aaron Swartz used a bit of code and a trial program at his local library to download nearly 20 million pages of files, which caught the attention of the FBI. Malamud ended up in an interrogation room with two armed agents. "Unlike my good friend Aaron Swartz and others who are willing to stick it to the man," Malamud says, "I look very carefully at what we're doing to see if it's legal or not."

In 2010 Malamud is shifting his focus somewhat. In the past, he's often been a lone operator. Now he wants to evolve into a leader of a large-scale movement to change the relationship between people and the law. Malamud hopes that Obama's election has created an opportunity to go beyond the decision in the Veeck case and firmly establish as an American principle that laws are accessible to anyone. The movement is centered around a simple idea known as Law.gov: an online platform that will allow anyone to easily and freely access federal, state, and local law; judicial rulings and briefs; congressional hearing transcripts; regulations; and other government materials. Malamud estimates that running something like Law.gov would cost $50 million a year, and he plans to spend the next year convening meetings about it at the nation's top law schools, tapping into the vibrant movement for free access to law, getting judges on board, and figuring out how to build such a system.

"When I started this, I understood that I might crash and burn," he says. "The whole point is that even if we crash and burn, the dialogue will be useful." Indeed, the Law.gov concept is already running into the buzz saw of jurisdictions. Roberta Shaffer, head of the Law Library of Congress, surprised many when her holiday letter to her staff announced that the law library had already applied to direct the Law.gov domain. Shaffer wouldn't speak with me for this article, but the Law Library of Congress' Facebook page did post a pointed message: "The Law Library of Congress is a government entity, and has no formal or official relationship with Carl Malamud," it reads. "However, the Law Library is always interested in working with and receiving feedback from concerned citizens and the organizations with which they are affiliated." It doesn't stop there. "Therefore, we welcome and consider input from Carl and many, many others on our public-facing initiatives." It's at that second "many" that you begin to think that the Law Library might not be all that welcoming to Malamud's views on public information.

Still, Malamud believes that if he can appeal directly to the president, he can convince him that opening up access to the nation's law archives is a worthy and achievable goal. Obama is a former constitutional law professor, after all, and a bit of a technocrat. "We really want to take this football, hand it over to the president, and say 'go for it,'" he says. But Malamud is not convinced that the Obama White House is populated with true believers. Obama "would do his job a lot better if he did improve that infrastructure," Malamud says. "But I don't think that's something that he gets. I don't think that's something that Rahm Emanuel gets. If you look at the [chief information officer] and [chief technology officer] of the United States sitting there with a Dell computer and a 15-inch monitor, you think to yourself, 'Why in the hell does our CIO not have, like, three 30-inch monitors?'"

It's time for the government to catch up to technology. Creating free and easy access to court records, congressional hearings, and C-SPAN archives isn't a partisan issue. But open access is a populist politics all its own, a challenge to the pay-to-play mentality that has allowed the financial world to leap so far ahead when it comes to information-sharing technologies. "You see what they did with it," Malamud says. "They drove our economy down. They stole all our money. This stuff can very much be used for evil, and it has been, often. The opportunity here is that it can now be used for different things."

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