In June 2002 the European Commission published a proposal for a Directive on "the re-use and commercial exploitation of public sector documents". The scope of this measure is currently under debate, but could release large quantities of content generated by the public sector for exploitation by the information and media industries, while simultaneously undermining the financial viability of some of the very institutions that generate such data.
In January 2002 the European Commission published a Working Document entitled "Towards a European Union framework for the exploitation of public sector information". This proposed that public sector information should be made generally accessible on a cost-recovery basis only. Many would have no difficulty with the underlying premise that governments should not profit from information gathered at taxpayers' expense and for the public's benefit.
However, the Working Document went much further than "government information". It covered all information produced by bodies financed for the most part by the state (whether at regional or central level). On the face of it, this included not only such information as (to use UK examples) Ordnance Survey material, HMSO publications and the records of Companies House, but also information generated by such bodies as universities, schools, research institutes, libraries and also by museums and galleries. It proposed that this information should be made available on a non-exclusive basis and at no charge (beyond a fee covering the costs of supply only).
The Commission views participation in "the information society" as both an economic opportunity and a democratic necessity, and has established a Directorate General dedicated to formulating policy and legislative initiatives in this area. In the last couple of years, attention has focused on the role of the public sector. The public sector collects, processes and stores a vast amount of information, be it financial, geographical, legal, meteorological, archival, statistical or otherwise. The Commission believes that the advent of the digital age and the introduction of third-generation technologies will make this sort of information a valuable resource for businesses and citizens alike. It estimates the value of public sector information at 68 billion, and sees it as a springboard for mobile content. Public sector information is, according to the Commission, "a key resource for economic activity and...