Posts Tagged ‘Free Our Data’

Article: Access denied to the laws that govern us

Thursday, August 17th, 2006

I’ve written an article for the Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign that appeared in today’s paper:

Access denied to the laws that govern us
The Guardian, Technology August 17, 2006
By Heather Brooke

Shhh – don’t pass it on. It’s the kind of secrecy one might expect for a database of proposed nuclear reactors or plans to go to war. But a database containing the laws of the land? Surely the only way to obey the law is to know what it is in the first place? On August 2, the government rolled out the second stage of a long-delayed project to make the consolidated law of parliament accessible to the people. So how does it look? The public – who paid for the whole project – can’t get a look in.

No free public access sites have been granted permission to view the current system and testers of the database – predominantly from commercial legal publishing firms – have been told not to share their login and password. Even so, some testers are not entirely happy with what they’ve found after logging on to the top secret database of our country’s laws.

Firstly, an astounding Crown copyright notice greets the reader: “The Statute Law Database and the material on the SLD website are subject to Crown copyright protection. The Crown copyright waiver that applies to published legislation generally does not apply to SLD because it is a value-added product. Any reuse of material from SLD will be the subject of separate and specific licensing arrangements. No such arrangements have yet been entered into. Users should not therefore reproduce or reuse any material from SLD until further guidance is issued.”

Democracy advocates outraged

No matter that the value was added by public officials at taxpayer expense. Small commercial legal publishers and democracy advocates are outraged. “It is appaling that a government feels it should sell the laws it makes to the general public who must obey them,” said developer Francis Irving, who last month won two New Statesman new media awards for his web sites www.writetothem.com (the contribution to civic society award) and www.pledgebank.com (advocacy award). “Because the DCA’s data cannot be reproduced, it makes it impossible for anyone else to compete by providing new and innovative ways of accessing and learning the law.”

Irving had hoped to create a free, user-friendly legal database to rival his previous successes. As such he filed Freedom of Information Act requests last year asking for the raw data held by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Instead of thanking Irving for his interest, the DCA denied his request. Matthew Elliot, the chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, is appalled by the government’s response: “Any information collected by the government at taxpayers’ expense should be freely available to the public. If private organisations are willing to collate information at no expense to the taxpayer, why on earth is the government spending money doing exactly the same thing?”

DCA spokesman Alfred Bacchus says that the copyright notice is only for the pilot system. “For live running it will be suitably amended. We have always quoted that there will be a level of free access for the general public but there may be a charge against some of the value added data (defined under the terms of the Treasury’s Wider Markets Initiative) depending on the outcome of the commercial strategy. This is being discussed at the moment.”
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