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Business Information Publications Ltd

Response to the Green Paper “Public Sector Information in the Information Society”

A clear definition of what constitutes the public sector is paramount to any discussion on access to public sector information, and a narrow interpretation confined to state authorities would be totally inappropriate. The concept of “public sector” should include all organisations that are mainly financed through public funds. The scope of public sector information discussed should also be broad, covering both administrative and non-administrative information.

Conditions for access to public sector information, currently set by individual Member States, create barriers not only to access but to uniform exploitation of such information. Harmonisation of the rules is therefore imperative if the interests of all parties are to be fully served.

However there must be a limitation as to the extent that access is allowed. No access should be given that would infringe on personal privacy matters. As to pricing, any individual who is able to demonstrate a personal need for specific information related to them, should be provided with that information free of charge or at a nominal cost. Others should be charged a commercial rate which reflects not the cost of compiling or storing the data but providing it.

Providing merely a right to access public information, without offering a service to help locate it would be ineffective. A central search facility is therefore imperative and the Internet provides the ideal medium for such a service.

The mechanics for pricing public sector information should be based on consideration of market type. Whilst data for the benefit of the general public should be available (in its basic format only), free of charge, information for narrow user groups should be charged at a commercial rate and be made available to licensed private sector organisation provided they value add. Value-adding, whether through amalgamation with other data or better delivery functionality should be left to the private sector.

Once the EC sets out on a course to value-add beyond merely providing information in an accessible and understandable format, then it transgresses into the area of unfair competition.

The fact is that the private sector may be slow in developing some information services based on public information sources merely confirms the fact that the European infomediary companies are still in their infancy. It takes time for these companies to develop the necessary skills to exploit the full market potential of services derived from public information sources. Their development will be much easier if the EC provides them with support, not competition.

Different copyright regimes within Europe represent additional barriers for private sector exploitation of public sector information. A directive harmonising copyright must be produced if public sector held information is to be efficiently and effectively provided by the private sector.

Personal privacy considerations must at all times be considered paramount An individual’s rights must be maintained when a licence is granted to any organisation wishing to exploit information of a personal nature. Only once adequate assurances have been given by the proposed license holder that personal details will not be exploited or traded to others should a license be granted.

The EU is to be commended for its active approach to providing access to the data it holds. It should through the legal process, ensure this approach is followed by all Member States. It should also initiate an awareness programme, regarding the type of information it holds and its location, and provide private organisations with a standard charging system for licensed access.

Whatever the outcome of this Green Paper, the fact that the EU has opened up the debate is an indication that the future holds new opportunities, not only for infomediary companies, but also the citizens of Europe, to the benefit of the society within which they live.

Business Information Publications Ltd. 
15 Woodlands Terrace,
Glasgow G3 6DF.

May 31st 1999


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