Policy guidelines for the development and promotion of governmental public domain information

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I.4. The importance of governmental public domain information

The body of governmental - and other - information in the public domain as defined above is massive and may be credited with contributing broadly to the economic and social development of the entire world. In the context of the global information society, the objective is to provide universal access and to close the gap between the information-rich and information-poor. One important element of such a strategy is to expand the amount and quality of information in the public domain, particularly information that is created in the public sector or by public-interest institutions, and then to facilitate open and equitable access for all citizens to the knowledge and benefits to be derived from that information commons. But before these Guidelines address how this might be done, it is important to understand more fully why it should be done, both in economic and non-economic terms.

I.4.1. Benefits to society17

The benefits of public domain information are perhaps easiest to describe in non-economic terms. For information produced by governments, one of the greatest non-economic values associated with placing governmental information in the public domain is transparency of governance and the promotion of democratic ideals: equality, democracy, openness. The more information that is openly available from the government and about the government, the less likely will it be that government is able to hide illegal acts, corruption and misrule. Conversely, excessive secrecy breeds tyranny.
Open and unrestricted dissemination of public sector information also enhances public health and safety, and the general social welfare, as citizens become better able to make informed decisions about their daily life, their environment, and their future. Indeed, there is a wide range of social objectives underlying the provision of public content. At one end of the spectrum are the "public good" or "public interest" policy objectives. In this context the public's welfare will be better served through access to or disclosure of information, rather than a paternalistic approach, in which decisions are made by the government on behalf of the people without informing or consulting them. An example is making information available concerning health services in cases where the health service provider, such as a laboratory or a hospital, has failed to provide diagnostic services or treatment at an adequate standard. Irrespective of the public or private ownership or status of that service provider, citizens are entitled to access this information for a number of reasons, such as to enable them to avoid risks to their health, or to choose another provider, or to apply pressure to rectify the failure. The same reasoning applies to concerns about environmental pollution, to the misuse of public funds, and so on.
The amount of public sector information is growing in response to what is known as consumer protection demands. The growth of consumer protection laws has had the effect of increasing the volume and categories of information in the public domain. There are now numerous reporting requirements in many countries for both private and public organizations that are designed to regulate certain behaviour or activities for the public’s welfare. These include laws to ensure that consumers and shareholders have access to financial and market information to enable them to improve the quality of their economic decision-making. Another objective is to make it harder for agencies to monopolize and hide information to the detriment of the public.
The promotion of each nation’s social capital is another reason for expanding the information commons through public domain information. There are many social benefits to be derived from a more knowledgeable population. Public funding of libraries, archives, museums, educational bodies and research institutes are all manifestations of recognition of these benefits, even if much of the information held by these institutions, although generally accessible, is protected by copyright. Public authorities have a critical role to play in each of these capacity-building areas, including by making available as much government-produced information in the public domain as possible.
Finally, governmental public domain information can support essential scientific and technical research functions in every society. The scientific and engineering communities are at the forefront of creating the information and technologies that advance the world’s economy and development. Factual databases, many of which are collected by government entities or with government funding, are fundamental to the progress of science, to the advancement of technological innovation, and to an effective educational system. The open availability of publicly funded scientific data and the public domain status of unprotected factual information are one of the cornerstones of basic research.18

I.4.2. The economic role and value of governmental public domain information
Neither the economic role nor the value of public domain information is easy to quantify. There are several reasons for this. One is that much of the information that is originally created in the public domain - either by government entities or through government funding - is created outside the market forces that govern the creation and dissemination of information covered by IP rights in the private sector. The value of information created at taxpayer expense for public-interest purposes is not always readily calculable. Part of the problem lies in distinguishing those public domain information products with redeeming economic or social value from others without such value or even having negative effects (e.g. erroneous, fraudulent, or malicious intent and results). But even when the information clearly has positive effects, these can be difficult to describe with much accuracy.
An indicative approach to estimating the value of governmental public domain information is just to add up the costs of producing it. For example, the United States federal government’s fiscal year budget for 2004 is over US$ 2.3 trillion, of which a substantial fraction, totalling many billions of dollars, is spent on producing information that is in the public domain. Much of that information is now available online, freely and globally accessible.19 If one adds the money invested by all the world’s governments at all levels (intergovernmental, national, provincial, and local) in creating public domain information every year, on a continuing basis, one can obtain a simple understanding of the vast value of non-proprietary information.
But the analysis does not end here, as it should include secondary or “spin-off” uses as well as primary use. Take, for example, meteorological data and information, which are collected and disseminated by government agencies in all countries as a public service. In the United States, the agency that collects and disseminates weather information, the National Weather Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, provides the data openly, without any legal IP or contractual protection. This has resulted in a huge public user base in many sectors of application, including education and research, and has enabled the development of a robust private, value-adding weather information sector, which generates over US$ 500 million annually in economic activity.20
In some other countries, the public-sector meteorological offices and weather satellite organizations sell or license their data at commercial rates and protect their data products with intellectual property laws. In those countries, the underdevelopment of the private weather information businesses raises economic questions: Are these businesses able to compete using the government’s high-priced, IP-protected data, and can they generate profitable activity?21 Legal questions may also be raised, for example in Europe where a public body can be compelled, by a court decision founded on the “essential facilities” principle, to give access to public information at a reasonable price, despite copyright protection. Some other countries have taken no decisions yet about whether and under what conditions the information produced by public authorities is accessible by the private sector in order to generate substantial private revenue.
Beyond the “value” of information based on the costs of producing it and the sales generated by it, its value to the larger economy and society is magnified greatly by the economically productive and socially beneficial uses to which the information is put.22 Information with the lowest barriers to access and use will potentially have the widest audience, and the positive effects of public domain information can be increased by enormous proportions when such information is placed on global digital networks (e.g. the Internet) with their rapidly expanding user base. Like telephones and fax machines, digital networks have a high positive feedback and strong amplification of value with increased numbers of users. In economic terms, this is known as a network effect. This factor, alone, provides a compelling argument in favour of increasing network connectivity in the developing world and increasing the amount of information available at no cost and without restrictions on reuse.
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