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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Privatized Data Woes in Britain

While FGI normally focuses on US government information policy issues, there is a conflict going on in the UK that mirrors some of the recent stories about public data being used by private companies in a privileged way, forcing the taxpayer to pay twice for their data.

An April 17, 2008 Guardian article titled A costly 2008 Domesday Book details how not one, but two British agencies contracted with commercial companies to post government compiled data. The result:

After seven years of legal wrangling, an official, complete and constantly updated list of addresses in England and Wales is about to become available for commercial use. The National Land and Property Gazetteer (NLPG), compiled from data supplied by local councils, is being promoted as the best list of property addresses since the Domesday Book.

Free data it is not. Although prices have yet to be finalised, the commercial firm hosting the service said this week it will cost between £15,000 and £20,000 a year. Profits will be shared among local authorities to help them keep data up to date.

The gazetteer is not the only address database on the market. The state-owned Ordnance Survey also offers addresses as part of its MasterMap digital geographical database of Britain.

Most of the article is about campaigns to free the data. In analyzing the roadblocks, they talk about issues that will be familiar to US readers:

“We would like to give it away free,” says Nicholson. However, he says, local authorities are not going to give their work away when they have to pay for the use of postcodes from the Royal Mail’s Postcode Address File. Neither can Ordnance Survey, which is required by the Treasury to show a return on its activities, and regards MasterMap as a key part of its revenue-generating portfolio.

We wish the Free Our Data campaign well.

This is probably a good to time to mention that what FGI objects to isn’t the selling of data per se, but the selling of data that has already been compiled at taxpayer expense. If a private company wanted to raise its own venture capital, compile its own address list completely independent of government sources, we’d be all for it charging whatever the market could bear. But a private entity should not be allowed to be the sole, fee-based dispenser of information that has been compiled by government agencies using money confiscated through taxation. THAT’s what we’re against.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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