A lot of the most useful information that is generated these days comes courtesy of the government and is funded by taxpayers. This is particularly true about basic research, which is mostly funded by government agencies like the NIH and NSF. But quite often, private sector interests lobby lawmakers to allow them to take that information out of the public domain and make it proprietary and charge people huge amounts of money to gain access to that information, even though we have already paid for that information through our taxes. That was one of the things that infuriated Aaron Swartz and for which the justice department hounded him until his death.
For example, the National Weather Service produces (among other things) weather forecasts at its excellent website. Just type in your zip code and you get the forecast for your area. This service is provided free to all, which seems right since it is funded by all of us and this information is of vital importance to pilots, fishermen, farmers, and others.
But in 2005 Rick Santorum, then a US senator from Pennsylvania, introduced legislation actually forbidding the National Weather Service from giving this information away to the public. It was hardly a coincidence that the commercial for-profit AccuWeather company, that gets its data from the National Weather Service and then packages it and sells it for a profit to other people, was located in Pennsylvania, and that its employees were contributors to Santorum’s campaigns. If Santorum’s legislation had passed, consumers would have had to pay for the same information twice, once in the form of taxes to generate it, and then again to purchase the information form private companies. Fortunately, it failed.
Another example is the electronic filing of tax returns. Since the IRS prepares all the tax forms we have to fill out, in the internet age it would have been logical for them to create the software that would enable people to file their taxes electronically and for free. But instead of doing that, the IRS made a deliberate decision not to develop online filing software and gave that benefit to the private sector. It is true that in return for this gift to the private sector, those companies had to agree to provide free online filing to lower income people but the arrangement still does not make sense. It is inefficient for the IRA to make the forms and rules and regulations and then hand them over to someone else to prepare software that follows them. Errors are bound to creep in. Furthermore, why should people have to provide their important personal information to a private company in order to deal with the government? As a result, I refuse to use those services, preferring to do my taxes myself.
As Matt Yglesias points out, the current system creates an incentive for these companies to oppose tax simplification since difficult tax forms drive more people to purchase their software. As he says, “The only thing standing in the way of 15-minute taxes is the insidious lobbying clout of the tax preparation industry—and unfortunately it’s getting worse even as technology should be making it better.”
As another example, all legal proceedings should be made freely available to the public since the legal system is entirely publicly funded. If private companies wish, they can take that public information and add value to those documents by making them more accessible with search features and the like and charge people for the value added, but the information should not be allowed to become so difficult to obtain that it becomes effectively proprietary. Anyone should be able to easily access and use the raw information. But right now, the government does not provide easy access to all the legal rulings, leaving private companies to dominate the market and charge high fees for access.
But one front there is some progress. As I said before, most basic research is funded by government agencies. But some of the journals that publish the papers that report the results of the research charge huge subscription fees, thus denying access to all but the richest universities, and even they are complaining about the cost.
Reader Walter informs me that in response to an online petition, John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, issued a statement saying that all government-funded research must be made free to read within 12 months after publication.
This is still not good enough, since it can take a year or more for a submitted article to be published in a journal, meaning that two years can elapse from the time of completion of the work to when the general public has access to it. In a fast-moving world that is nowhere near fast enough.
I think the future lies in open-source publishing, where papers are posted online as soon as the authors are ready to go public. The arXiv project out of Cornell University, where physicists and those in a few other fields post their preprints along with submitting them to journals is a good step forward. It was because of arXiv that people were able to respond so quickly to the faster-than-light neutrino story and the Higgs boson search.