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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.

National Weather Service under risk of privatization. John Oliver has more

Talking about the weather is supposed to be the one safe topic that people from all stripes can talk about. But John Oliver ruins that — in an extremely funny and informative way of course! He explains the importance of the National Weather Service (NWS), which is a sub-agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NWS makes all of its weather forecasts and climate data openly available for free and also shares data and modeling with other weather services around the world through its membership in the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). One could argue that the National Weather Service is among the most critical government services and a global public good.

Over the last 15-20 years however, there has been a concerted push by private companies to get into the weather game. Whereas companies like AccuWeather and the Weather Channel would in the past use NWS data and add value to it, today, according to Andrew Blum — who wrote the recently published book “The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast”
“…you’ve got companies running their own models, deploying their own observing systems,” and as Oliver points out, acting as gatekeepers to weather data. Check out Blum’s interview on a recent PBS Newshour for more context and by all means, watch Oliver’s piece below.

The most recent move at privatization of the weather is when the Trump administration named Barry Myers, the ex-CEO of AccuWeather, for the dual post of NOAA Administrator and Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere, Department of Commerce and include oversight of the National Weather Service. His nomination was submitted in October, 2017 and renewed in January, 2018 and again in 2019. His nomination was stalled for quite a while, but in April of this year, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee voted 14-12 along party lines to move Myers’ nomination forward.

Myers’ nomination is extremely problematic for 2 reasons: 1) He has gone on the record in support of privatizing the weather service — in 2005, he and his brother gave money to then-Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) who “introduced legislation aimed at curtailing government competition with private weather services”; and 2) AccuWeather this year agreed to pay a substantial fine for “sexual harassment and a hostile work environment” while Myers was AccuWeather’s chief executive. Is this really the person we want providing oversight to the National Weather Service and NOAA as a whole?!

Court Rules That Laws Can Be Copyrighted

Carl Malamud has been fighting for free public access to private standards (like building codes) that are “incorporated by reference” into the law. Such standards are usually copyrighted and not published in official, public domain versions of the law. The federal district court in Washington DC has just ruled that this practice of, essentially, copyrighting the law is legal.

The court basically ordered Malamud to delete all these standards from the internet saying:

the public interest is served by the policy interests that underlie the Copyright Act itself, namely the protection of financial incentives for the continued creation of valuable works, and the continued value in maintaining the public-private system in place in the U.S. to ensure continued development of technical standards.

techdirt comments: “Did you get that ridiculous sleight of hand? The public is served by no longer having access to the law because it’s better for some private organizations to get rich off of the standards that are a part of the law, or else such standards might not be developed. Huh?” [emphasis added]

Readers or Consumers? Citizens or Customers?

Are users of government information citizens or “customers”? What would Ranganathan say? Barbara Fister addresses the topic of library attitudes to their communities in her newest post on InsideHigherEd

    Books Are For Use, by Barbara Fister, Inside Higher Ed. Library Babel Fish (January 23, 2014).

    I have argued that as we increased access to information (for a high price), we’ve become more parochial (these collections are for authorized users only!) and more global (with our collections owned by distant corporations, not by institutions of higher learning).

We have written about this issue in terms of government information before here at FGI (E-Gov: are we citizens or customers? and Reflections on the end of a year and the beginning of a new year) but, as Fister says “market-based assumptions have so permeated our discipline they seem to be everywhere.” See for example Rick Anderson’s recent Ithaka S+R paper and our response: What’s love got to do with it? further thoughts on libraries and collections #lovegate.

Fister and colleagues are doing something about getting libraries right.They are surveying faculty at institutions of all kinds (particularly those in disciplines in which books matter) to assess support for a group of liberal arts college libraries to undertake founding an open access press. Read her post and forward the survey on to those who can help!

Defense Department to privatize its public domain media archive

According to a recent GCN article “DOD wants you … to browse its visual library”  the US Department of Defense has entered into a “no cost” contract with a company called T3 Media to have them digitize DoD’s massive image and video archive. It seems that DoD employees will get free access to the digital archive, but T3 Media will receive a 10 year monopoly license to charge for public access to the archive.

This is not the first time that a federal agency has entered into “no cost” contracts to privatize its public domain information. A few years ago, GAO contracted w Thomson/West to digitize GAO’s archive of legislative histories of public laws 1915 – 1995. When will federal agencies realize that giving away the whole store does them and the public a HUGE disservice?!

According to Rick Prelinger who alerted us to the GCN article:

In exchange for covering a share of digitizing and hosting costs (the government will pick up an unspecified share of costs as well), T3 Media will provide access to the government and receive a 10-year exclusive license to charge for public access to these public domain materials.

I contacted T3Media’s communications manager who could only tell me that “the material will be available for licensing.” Costs, procedures and restrictions are still undecided or undisclosed. T3 will possess the highest-quality digital copies of these materials and there is no guarantee that DoD will offer them to the public online when the 10-year window expires. It’s therefore hard to know whether this contract will serve the public interest.

While I have not yet seen the contract, the project Statement of Objectives offers additional information and here’s T3Media’s release.

[HT BoingBoing!]

Canada set to digitize documents, but limit access

The Canadian government’s Library and Archives Canada (LAC) announced more details of its digitization project. In a “digitization partnership” with Canadiana.org, a not-for-profit charitable organization, there will be a large scale digitization project that will involve about 60 million images from numerous collections, including the indexing and description of millions of personal, administrative and government documents, as well as land grants, war diaries and photographs and the transcription of millions of handwritten pages. This is a “10-year agreement.”

The announcement says that Canadians will have “access” regardless of where they live, at no charge.

However, enhanced access (presumably the enhancements added by Canadiana.org of indexing and desciptions and transcriptions?) will be available to Canadians free of charge only “at LAC” and at “subscribing libraries.”

All Canadians will be able to use the enhanced tools “online” and be able to conduct advanced searches “without leaving home” “for a small monthly fee.”

The announcement apparently is describing a system of tiered access, but exactly how it will be implemented is unclear from the wording of the announcemnt. Will users have to visit physical facilities to get “enhanced access”? Or will online access be available to those who can log in to subscribing libraries? Will the restrictions be lifted after the end of the “10-year agreement”? Will the ten years start now, or at the end of the digitization? What is the fee? What is the justification of giving some Canadians free access and charging others?

We still need more details to fully evaluate this project, but it looks like another trade off in which a government improves access through digitization by limiting access in some way and charging fees for access to public information. It appears that the limitations in this case are to the indexing and searching tools. Apparently, if you can find the image you want out of the 60 million images to be created, you will be able to look at it for free.