In an interesting court decision, a federal judge ruled last week that some federal agencies had wrongly turned over information in unsearchable PDF files. The judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, “is regarded as an expert on electronic discovery issues, having written three books on the subject.”
In addition, the judge ruled that the agency must produce requested requested metadata such as the date files were created and modified.
- Federal judge says unsearchable PDFs ‘not sufficient disclosure’, by Wendell Cochran, Investigative Reporting Workshop, American University School of Communication (Feb. 8, 2011)
Although this is surely not the last word in either this particular case or in case law in general on these issues, it is a significant step. It demonstrates that the courts are beginning to recognize that simple “access” to “information” is not sufficient any more. Information must be provided in formats that enable its use and re-use. In this particular case, plaintiffs had requested spreadsheets and received instead simple images of pages or “screen shots.”
This is relevant to the dissemination of all government information. Governments must make their information not just accessible and viewable, but usable and re-usable. Perhaps more case law will help persuade agencies of the need to produce information originally in open, re-usable, and therefore preservable, digital formats.
Hat tip to Kevin Taglang!