Carl Malamud is a man with a mission: To make public information freely available to the public.
For more than three decades, Malamud has not just talked in theory about why government materials should be online—he has taken action to digitize and upload massive amounts of data himself. He is the reason many laws and judicial opinions, corporate filings and patents, Congressional hearings and government films are at the fingertips of the American people.
“Our democracy, particularly today, depends on an informed citizenry, with so much misinformation and disinformation,” said Malamud, 63, founder of the nonprofit organization Public.Resource.Org. “We have to learn how our government works, what our fundamental values are, and we have to communicate that with our fellow citizens.”
Malamud is a disrupter for the public good.
His effort to unleash government data behind paywalls has put him at odds with many trying to profit from dispensing public records. Yet in case after case, Malamud is winning and adding to the body of open knowledge freely available online.
In recognition of his relentless work on behalf of the public interest, Malamud has been honored with the 2022 Internet Archive Hero Award.
The annual award is given to those who have exhibited leadership in making information available for digital learners all over the world. Previous recipients have included copyright expert Michelle Wu, librarians Kanta Kapoor and Lisa Radha Vohra, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and the Grateful Dead. His contributions will be celebrated the evening of October 19 at the Internet Archive’s Building Democracy’s Library event.
“Carl has spent his career getting public access to the public domain, bringing government information to everyone with no restrictions,” said Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle. “He’s been unwavering in his vision, seeing how the works of governments can be leveraged by everyone using this digital technology.”
Although he’s not in the civil service, Kahle said Malamud acts as a civil servant. He sides with advancing the public interest over corporate profits, and has been a pioneer in how to operate a nonprofit in the internet space. Malamud’s tenacity and drive is at the essence of what it means to be a hero, said Kahle: “Somebody who puts themselves at risk or in harm’s way to get their vision built.”
After studying the convergence of computers and communication in college, Malamud went to Washington, D.C., to work in public policy. Malamud developed an expertise in databases, networking, and technology to broadcast audio and video over the internet. In 1993, he started the nonprofit Internet Multicasting Service and ran the first radio station on the internet out of an office in the National Press Building. (An archive of his broadcasts from 1993-95 are available here.)
One of Malamud’s early projects was putting corporate information from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission — the Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval system (EDGAR) online. This allowed investors, journalists and citizens to download information about SEC filings for free, rather than pay a fee to a private company.
The work was funded with a grant from the National Science Foundation, and with money left over from the project, Malamud put the databases from the U.S. Patent Office online. In each instance, Malamud had to first purchase the database from.
“I got a grant from the American people, to buy the data from the American people, so I could give it back to the American people,” said Malamud, who often uses such plain language in his arguments for unlocking information into the public realm.
Demonstrating by doing
Getting the SEC data online was a seminal event, said Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media, noting he and others were inspired by Malamud’s fearless “hacktivism” approach. “It was the beginning of the open government data movement,” he said. “I’ve always called Carl an unsung hero ever since that, because he’s the guy who started it all in motion.”
Faced with pushback from entities that say it’s too hard or it will take too long to put information online, Malamud moves forward and demonstrates it can be done affordably—and the public will use it. It was Malamud who set up the first internet demonstration in the White House during Bill Clinton’s presidency. He advised the administration, and others that followed, on technology policy and identified opportunities to make government records available online—and demonstrated it’s possible.
“Carl has an unwavering commitment to the core principle that citizens should have access to the law and to government documents….and he’s establishing an important legal precedent,” said Tom Kalil, former White House aide to President Clinton and President Obama. “He’s not just a public intellectual writing op-eds, but actually getting things done.’
A passion for changing systems
Malamud has also been a prolific writer. He is the author of nine books, including “Exploring the Internet,” all composed in long hand on paper.
His writing caught the eye of John Podesta in the early 1990s, who was working for President Clinton and figuring out how to move from paper to digital archiving.
“Carl and I had a passion for [the idea] that public records should be public and electronic records should be preserved,” said Podesta. “Carl was both a pioneer and advocate for the power of the net as a democratic tool.”
Podesta said Malamud was a force on Capitol Hill trying to shape legislation, and when he started the Center for American Progress, in 2003, Podesta hired Malamud to be chief technology officer of the progressive think tank. “Carl is friendly and funny, but what really makes him effective is that he’s dogged and passionate. He wears that on his sleeve,” Podesta said. “He just gets right to the point, and I really admire that in him.”
From pushing for access to material from the Smithsonian Institution to the House of Representatives , Podesta said his single-handed influence is clear. “He’s really changed systems,” Podesta said. “He just won’t accept the status quo.”
Podesta said Malamud has had the most impact going right to the source of the data, trying to convince the entities to put information in the public domain.
“It’s extremely valuable in a democracy to make sure that people have not just theoretical access, but real access,” to information, Podesta said. “Oftentimes, the burdens are either bureaucracy or ridiculous charges to get public documents. No one challenges that, but Carl does.”
A battle for the ages
In 2007, Malamud started Public.Resource.Org, based in Sonoma County, California. He has 18 people on contract and numerous collaborators, and works with a dozen pro bono law firms to advance the mission of the nonprofit. The organization operates with a grant from Arcadia (a charitable trust of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin) and donations from individuals. He appeals to players across the political spectrum with a variety of tactics: writing letters, making speeches, talking to officials in person, and, when necessary, filing lawsuits to challenge claims of copyright.
Recently, Malamud had a big win with a U.S. Supreme Court case (Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org) after he posted the Official Code of Georgia and was sued for copyright violations—a decision that has had a ripple effect across the country. For nearly a decade, he’s been embroiled in a legal fight to put building, electrical and other public safety codes with the force of law online.
“I look for things that should be available and are not,” Malamud said, then simply lays out why information should be free with clear, defensible reasons. “You have to have a story that makes sense.”
Malamud has worked at this cause like no one else, determined to make sure the public realizes what’s at stake when powerful people are concealing the world of knowledge, said David Halperin, a Washington, D.C., attorney. Halperin was with the Clinton administration and has been counsel to Public.Resource.Org since 2012. “He puts it on them to have to explain why their special interests are more important than global progress and democracy,” he said.
Halperin said Malamud is effective because he is relentless and shares his infectious love of democracy. “And, he is willing to be the person who, when everyone else says, ‘Shut up and get along,’ says: ‘No, this still isn’t right. I’m not going to be cuddly here. It’s time for me to be the moral voice, to be the energy in the room that says, Okay, everyone else may now feel it’s time to be collegial. I feel like it’s time to be just.’”
Corynne McSherry, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has represented Malamud in several cases and said he knows how to adjust his strategy to persuade others and be creative in his messaging.
“He tries to help people understand what it is he’s up to, because it’s not always clear to everybody,” McSherry said. “When you can’t see the world that the person is building towards, that person has to imagine it for you—and that’s the thing he does.”
Since Malamud was involved in the early days of the internet, he embraced the potential promise of the technology to open up knowledge, McSherry said.
“We live in a nation of rules, and we should have the ability to actually know what they are,” McSherry said, although for a long time those rules were only available to experts with special access. “That changed. Pulling our governmental structures and all our laws into the 21st century is not a small task, but that’s what Malamud took on.”
Drawing inspiration from history
To make his case in the court of public opinion, Malamud has used humor and tapped into his artistic side. He produced a video about making building and electrical codes open, “Show Me The Manual,” and a short movie about his philosophy, “Open Access Ninja.” He speaks at conferences and universities, tailoring his message to attorneys, government workers, students, or fellow open advocates to advance his cause. The Internet Archive hosts a collection of his videos, texts and other materials online, as well as FedFlix, which includes government films Malamud uploaded and curated.
Malamud has expanded his efforts internationally, working with organizations in India to scan government and cultural information. His Public Library of India collections on the Internet Archive are some of the most popular India resources on the net.He’s become an Indian food expert, of sorts, too, said McSherry, and often expresses his gratitude to her and other attorneys working on his behalf by gifting them with Indian spices.
Since he began working in this space, Malamud said he’s encouraged to see more forward thinking about open data. Still, barriers exist. Most often, he said, he’s up against money and control. While Malamud said he’s making inroads in the power struggle, he said it’s “sort of Whack-A-Mole” with every win followed by another challenge popping up.
When he needs a little inspiration himself, Malamud said he reads from his library of writings from early American feminists and civil rights leaders. Sometimes he quotes Martin Luther King Jr. (“Change only comes with continuous struggle”) or Gandhi (“A public worker has to learn to endure with fortitude.’)
A recurring lesson he’s gleaned from others in history who had fought against the establishment: “You can, in fact, change the way the world works—but you have to be patient. It takes time.”