After years of dogging government, Malamud wants to be Public Printer

Carl Malamud is going to Washington.

But the bigger question is, will he move there?

Malamud, a Sebastopol resident, is an Internet maverick who for two decades has dogged the government to be more transparent by putting its public documents online.

In the mid 1990s, he pushed the Securities and Exchange Commission to put all corporate filings online.

More recently, Malamud began posting millions of court documents online for free ? something the government would have charged an individual about $1.6 million to access.

Now, after nearly 20 years as a nagging political outsider, Malamud wants in.

He is campaigning to be appointed Public Printer of the United States. It is a Washington position that would afford him the power to quickly push through many of the ideas he has arduously battled for ? in particular making public government data available free online.

He?s spent the past two weeks collecting endorsements, which range from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to noted Internet advocate Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford professor. He launched his campaign on Feb. 24 on his site

Now he is taking his endorsements to the U.S. political mecca, where he hopes to make a case for his appointment.

?I bought a plane ticket and I?m going to Washington,? Malamud said from his office in Sebastopol.

Is he a long shot? Probably. Even he thinks so. And it?s not clear that President Obama, who appoints the U.S. Public Printer, is even considering him.

But the Sebastopol resident has garnered dozens of high-profile endorsements from the tech community, and recently was featured in publications ranging from the New York Times to Mother Jones.

?I?m absolutely confident that Carl walks in and within seven months you see a radically different G.P.O.,? Lessig said.

The U.S. Government Printing Office, or GPO, which the public printer oversees, is charged with providing access to public documents produced by all three branches of government ? executive, judicial and legislative.

In the past year or so, the idea that the government should be more transparent and make all its public documents available online for free has enjoyed a groundswell of support. What Malamud spent years doing in obscurity is suddenly getting a lot more attention, support and collaboration.

For instance, the content-loaded Internet has spawned a whole new genre of artists who remix audio, video and other mediums into inspiring mashups. But many artists run into problems with copyright. Even the famous Obama ?Hope? poster has its creator embroiled in a copyright battle with the Associated Press over the president?s image.

Putting online the government?s extensive collections of content ? from World War II newsreels to tax compliance videos ? would represent a treasure trove of copyright-free material.

Also, easy access to laws and regulations makes for a more informed citizenry. Laws are the operating system of our society, Malamud likes to say.

To be clear, he is not advocating that the government make its non-public information available, such as top secret documents or individuals? Social Security numbers.

Rather, Malamud has set his sights on the government?s vast public data that is either offline in paper-only form, or hidden behind pay-for-access firewalls. For instance, the U.S. Court system charges 8 cents a page to view court documents online at its PACER Web site.

The open-government movement wants those firewalls knocked down, and government archives digitized and placed online for free.

?Carl has done that as an outsider for a long time, and has had tremendous success,? Lessig said. ?Imagine if he could do it from the inside. He could be revolutionary in how the government deals with public data.?

While the office of Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, hadn?t heard about their constituent?s campaign, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., recently mentioned Malamud and his work favorably in a letter chastising the U.S. courts for not providing better access and privacy for court documents.

It?s not surprising most Washington insiders haven?t heard of Malamud, or his campaign for the little-known office. He did not contribute money to the Obama campaign, often a traditional route to access in Washington. His approach has been unusual ? to say the least.

In fact, it might be one of the most novel campaigns for an appointment since former printer Augustus Giegengack took an unconventional approach to land the same job ? and got it in 1933.

The little-known Giegengack canvassed the East Coast, collecting signatures from fellow printers, which he bound into a book and took to Washington. He hobnobbed with political elites, and finally got his collection of endorsements presented to President Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt nominated Giegengack in the midst of the Great Depression.

Malamud, who discovered the three-part series on Giegengack written in 1943 for the New Yorker, aspired to copy Giegengack?s unconventional approach ? albeit with a decidedly modern twist.

So on Monday, Malamud watched with subdued triumph as hundreds of people gathered for his campaign rally.

?Is this thing on? We?ll be starting in 10 minutes,? he said to his audience. ?Nice crowd! Please make yourself comfortable.?

People began shouting out endorsements for the Sebastopol resident.

?Carl Malamud should be head of the Government Printing Office,? said one person.

?Me too! I endorse Carl Malamud for Public Printer of the United States,? said another.

But this was no ordinary rally. Hundreds of people nationwide had gathered online using the Web site Twitter. And they were virtually endorsing and rallying behind Malamud?s effort.

It is those unusual endorsements that Malamud will be taking to Washington next week, bound in a 265-page color book full of Twitter endorsements ? three tweets per page.

He plans to meet with congressional aides and Web masters for the Smithsonian Institution ? all part of his regular duties as an advocate.

?I?ve done the endorsement phase. Now I?m going to Washington to do the socializing,? he said.

He?s also hoping, like Giegengack, to get his book of endorsements into Obama?s line of sight. Malamud isn?t a total outsider to the administration either. He was asked by its transition team to write a four-page paper ?re-imagining? the U.S. Federal Register, which is essentially a daily publication of all government activity.

And if he gets appointed, confirmed, and faces the prospect of leaving his cherished west county home?

?I?d much rather live in the Bay Area,? he said. ?On the other hand, the GPO is in Washington.?

You can reach Staff Writer

Nathan Halverson at 521-5494 or Check out his blog at or on

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