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Thursday, 17 February 2011

Open government, burried data: up to 40,000 people to be priced of the net

A written answer to a parliamentary question asked by Tom Watson yesterday revealed the existence of a government estimate.

The estimate: between 10,000 and 40,000 people may no longer be able to afford broadband when ISPs pass-on the cost of implementing sections of the Digital Economy Act designed to tackle copyright infringement over the internet.

This is a story I covered last week, after the government was forced to admit it was "regrettable" that some of the poorest people would be priced off the net in a wild attempt to save the profits of a struggling entertainment industry.

As it turns out, this estimate was first published in a government document dated April 2010 (pdf), but despite my keen and persistent interest in the legislation I had failed to spot this assessment.

Which brings me on to a major problem with open government initiatives - not just publishing information in the first place, but making documents and data readily accessible.

Take this Impact Assessment.  Try search the internet for Digital Economy Act (or Bill) Impact Assessment.  At the time of writing I get a link to a zero-length PDF document (here - may be fixed by the time you read this).

Nowhere in major search engines do I find the actual document I want.  As it transpires, there's a copy in the National Archives, leaving me puzzled as to why, with two instruments still to pass before all planned measures of the act come into force, this crucial impact assessment has so speedily found itself removed from the BIS website and stashed in the National Archives.

It's also worth publishing the URL for the document in full as it somehow captures how well it's been burried:
Granted, had I known such documents were likely to have been transferred to the National Archives, I could have started my quest with a search of nationalarchives.gov.uk.

But surely the government can do far better.  Why not link to such Impact Assessments from the relevant legislation page on legislation.gov.uk?  Checking the More Resources section under this act I found nothing linking back to useful documents such as this Impact Assessment.

Of course we can rely on the press office of government departments to thrust favourable reports into the face of journalists, published in a prominent position on departmental websites.  That's a given, and something I don't think we can do much about.

But I hadn't quite appreciated how well some of the less favourable reports were buried.  Parliament needs a better system - categorised and classified by subject, and linked to relevant Acts on legislation.gov.uk.  And a central portal so one doesn't have to trawl departmental websites, Parliament's website, the National Archives, and any other hidey holes I've yet to discover!



  1. It's the Agatha Christie solution: the best way to hide something is in plain sight!

    In reality, no government is going to spend money while cutting public services on something that might show it in bad light.

    Unfortunately the central premise of the assessment is too vague and the reason this is buried is because it is meaningless
    "between 10,000 and 40,000 people may no longer be able to afford broadband when ISPs pass-on the cost of implementing sections of the Digital Economy Act"
    Most ISP's bundle at least some free broadband in with other services, and even some of the most deprived households still manage to have a Sky subscription and the latest phones. Headline stats are designed to be misleading, and such a predicted impact document cannot possibly assess people's real priorities as opposed to their preferences. Is me buying a pizza once a month instead of paying for broadband me priced out of the market or merely prioritising the pizza as more important to my quality of life?

  2. Key problem here seems to be that the Digital Economy Act is going to cost far more to run than it will make for the record and film companies, and it certainly looks like government is trying to hide this fact.

    No one wants this but the dying beast that is the outdated entertainment industry with its roots in controlling supply.

    The industry has, excuse me, f***** itself, and is refusing to face up to the consequences.

    Sadly I think big, mainly US-based interests are pulling the strings. Look at ACTA. Look at threats of "Special 301" trade sanctions against countries who refuse to toe the US line on protecting US intellectual property.

    I'm normally quite a reasonable chap but the way we're all being bullied by an industry punching way above its weight is astounding, and consequently I'm left very angry.

  3. Hi,

    Do you have any information about Monday meeting for DEA?

  4. Heard nothing about Monday. There was an event on net privacy scheduled with Google on Tuesday 1st March but I got email notification this event is CANCELLED.

  5. Hi James

    Picking up on this late, but I also spotted the disappearing DEAct Impact Assessment problem in the week before the Hargreaves Review evidence deadline. I emailed BIS about it and the publications team there and at DCMS were initially very helpful.

    They said, however, that the reason the pdf disappeared was:

    "It's not considered current since it originates from the previous administration (Labour govt.) so it's been deleted from the BIS and DCMS websites".

    They promised to get back to me about who took that decision and why but so far, nearly two weeks later, I've yet to hear from them.

    It would be pretty much impossible to consider that document as 'not current' if you were aware of the attention the DEAct is receiving, and the ongoing Hargreaves review and so on. And why were other Impact Assessments from the same time period and even further into the past left up (http://www.bis.gov.uk/impact-assessments)?

    Given how completely dreadful the 'Impact Assessment' is (which is 'very' dreadful), you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a deliberate effort to hide it during the final weeks of the Hargreaves Review call for evidence. Who knows if that's the case. It's worth asking.

    On the plus side, the National Archives copy is now the first Google result (although it's a bit late...) and I also put up a copy of it in my Dropbox: http://tinyurl.com/5rmumhp



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