Why Eric Ringmar is wrong…

I’ve been sitting on this for a bit and mulling it. BoingBoing ran an article to Professor Eric Ringmar who is using tools to “open” documents up which were private or held behind closed walls, ‘cleans’ the document by removing licenses and posts the new version on public sites. Whilst the ambition to open data and knowledge is laudable and should be done by everybody, I cannot get the fact out of my head that Ringmar could be seen as effectively stealing the document and breaking the trust and responsibility aspects of the Internet and open data.

Public documents such as the Hansard reports are digitised by an outside company who add DRM to the digital verison of the documents, ostensibly to recover their own costs for the service. Rather than doing this, it is in the public’s best interests for Parliament to pay for and develop their own digitisation service. If the service is not open (and in this case it clearly is not), then it is the Open Knowledge movement’s benefits to persuade the government that the initial expenditure is cost effective in keeping public data, er…, public.

Recently I ran into the issue of biographies on the Parliament website. I needed to link to Baroness Morgan of Drefelin‘s biography. The link my colleague provided came from the Parliamentary webste but when w linked to it and tested it, our access was blocked. I mailed the webmaster and was told that the service provision stated that biographies can only be accessed from the Parliament website. I question what biographical data is private and if it is, then why would be on a public website?

There is of course the issue of linking across the Internet. Public data is for sharing and creating links creates, in the long term, a web of trust and reputation. If a site has many links into it, it usually an indication of a reputation for providing good, useful and clear information (or a spam blog). Through this idiotic clause in its contract with the service provider, the UK Parliament has decided that it is against this network of deeplinks and useful information. I can only hope that this will change and that the British Government will invest in makingthe relvant changes to ensure that this small crevice in the iceberg is changed and adapted.

Of course if I took the Ringmar line, I could have cut and pasted the biographical details and then posted them outside of the offending site (apart from the fact that I was updating a news item on the STFC e-Science corporate site). We ended up using the above Wikipedia link instead since we don’t steal content. It wouldn’t particularly make the content any more free or be updated so would be rendered largely useless in a matter of months but it also only liberates one page. Forgive me for being stupid but in the age of online information, what’s the use of one page?

The wider argument is that we need public data to be, well… public. Available. Open. The UK Parliament should not be lagging behind and should now be clearly renegotiating the contract or hiring a team to rebuld their sites to conform to open standards.

Persuasion and argument is better than stealing which ultimately plays into the argument of “Do you believe in private property”? Sorry that’s a really lame argument for the hard of thinking but that door is left wide open by Ringmar. Openness relies upon honesty and trust not the physical artefact in the correct domain. Ringmar’s actions do not encompass or extend that trust or responsibility. Nor do they promote the movement towards an open information economy. Progress will no doubt be slow but if we can get the legislative and governing bodies at all levels to use open standards and demonstrate their use and viability, then we will all be the winners.