Monday, June 30, 2008

Britain government data free for re-use

It's official. Britain last week put its name to an international commitment to make data produced by government bodies available for free use in the internet economy. This is the first formal statement that the government has come on board the Free Our Data campaign launched by Guardian Technology (and widely derided as impractical) more than two years ago.

The commitment to make public sector information free, or charge no more than the marginal cost of maintaining and distributing the extra copy, appears in the Seoul declaration for the future of the internet economy, signed in the South Korean capital last week. The UK was one of nearly 40 countries to endorse the declaration, drawn up by the OECD club of developed nations.

Alongside commitments to encourage broadband, reduce digital exclusion and protect the critical infrastructure of the net, the declaration recognises the importance of public sector information in the new economy. "Public organisations are a major source of information, an increasing amount of which is digitised or produced in digital form and can be re-used in innovative ways for significant economic and social benefit."

However "while commercial and non-commercial access to, and, re-use of, public sector information and content is generally becoming more open, obstacles sometimes impede efficient and effective use". These include "restrictive or unclear rules governing access and conditions of re-use; unclear and inconsistent pricing of information if re-use is chargeable; complex and lengthy licensing procedures; inefficient distribution to final users; and barriers to development of international markets".

The declaration calls for the removal of "unnecessary restrictions on the ways in which it can be accessed, used, re-used, combined or shared". When public sector information is not provided free, prices should be transparent "and not exceed marginal costs of maintenance and distribution". However, one loophole is available: "Any higher pricing should be based on clearly expressed policy grounds."

The minister responsible for the internet, Shriti Vadera, did not attend the Seoul conference. However, Britain was represented by senior officials of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Their commitment to free data marks a significant change of heart - the department is responsible for the Shareholder Executive, which exists to ensure the remaining nationalised industries are as profitable as possible.

Although not binding on public bodies in the UK - several of which are required by law to make profits on their data - the declaration shows how quickly the political wind is changing.


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