It was 1991, in the early days of the Internet. Carl Malamud was thirty-two years old, and deeply embedded in a community of computer engineers and visionaries shaping the world’s nascent online architecture as it was being built atop phone lines and in parallel with other global networks.
Many of the technical standards governing those telecommunication systems were laid out in a 20,000-page document known as the Blue Book, covering such communications basics as modems, faxes, and packet switching. The standards were maintained and shepherded by the International Telecommunication Union, a Geneva-based intergovernmental agency. If you were an American engineer, student, inventor, or amateur who wanted a copy, you could buy it for about a dollar a page.
To Malamud and many others, this highly unsatisfactory state of affairs represented a real barrier to innovation and transparency. So Malamud told Tony Rutkowski, a sympathetic ITU official, that he was prepared to scan the Blue Book and put it online, freely accessible to all by anonymous FTP. It was a threat to commit “standards terrorism,” as Malamud later put it; faced with it, the ITU agreed to hand over the standards on nine-track magnetic tape to Malamud for a three-month free download trial.
Soon, the National Science Foundation, whose network was then the backbone of much of the Internet’s traffic, complained to Malamud that Blue Book downloads from his server and its mirrors were stressing NSF bandwidth. Given this flood of requests, the ITU’s head, under internal pressure, sent Malamud a letter asking him to take the standards down.
“It was pro-forma, and everybody knew it,” remembers Rutkowski. “The site had been replicated in a dozen places all over the world and it had been copied thousands of times.” Once free, there was no stopping the data.
“It just convinced me of two things,” Malamud says, looking back. “One, the power of open standards and why that’s so important to society, but also the power of putting large document archives online. Aggressively.”
And so, on and off for the last eighteen years, Malamud has been involved in or led a spate of impish efforts to pry public domain information—like building codes, law books, and court records—out of hidebound government entities. Now, via a Web-focused viral campaign, he’s unabashedly asking President Obama to make him the nation’s twenty-sixth Public Printer and put him in charge of one such very large government entity, the Government Printing Office.
The campaign, such as it is, is centered around Malamud’s lovingly named YesWeScan.org, where he lays out his platform and collects endorsements. At first blush it doesn’t look so different from any political campaign site, except that, in the end, it’s targeted at a single voter. “The best I can do is make my case,” says Malamud. “This is up to a fickle selectorate, if you will.”
“I have never in my life been asked to endorse a candidate for appointed office,” says OMB Watch executive director Gary Bass, a longtime fixture in Washington’s transparency and good government communities, who is supporting Malamud’s effort. “That’s not the way it’s usually done.”
But who said Malamud was very concerned about the way things are usually done? In 1993, in an early domestic example of what The Atlantic’s James Fallows once described as his ”guerrilla/jiujitsu approach,” Malamud was part of a team that coaxed vital data out of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The group then hosted the information on its own computer, upon which thousands of users—regulators, financiers, investors—came to depend.
And then the team put a notice on the portal, warning that the site—and visitors’ easy, free, access to data—would disappear in sixty days. Users were invited to click to learn more about the situation, and to contact the SEC.
“And people clicked,” says Malamud. The SEC brought the system under its wing. The database, known as EDGAR, runs to this day, and remains one of the most user-friendly online government databases.