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Mr Erkki Liikanen

Member of the European Commission, responsible for Enterprise and the Information Society

"Exploitation of public sector information"

Press Conference

Brussels, 24 October 2001


Yesterday the Commission has adopted a Communication on the exploitation of public sector information. Why public sector information is so important for the Information Society and how this fits in the policy that we have for digital content?

On the context

Our Information Society strives to be an inclusive concept, where all parts of society are represented.

To that end need to liberalise telecoms to drive prices down, we need to bridge the digital divide, and to ensure confidence in the Internet. These are prerequisites. But we also need services and applications content; in mother tongue; which motivates people to use the Internet.

Too often we focus our attention on the infrastructure and on the technology. We should concentrate on the services and content.

And right now we are at a critical moment, with the transition from the fixed to the mobile internet happening before our eyes.

Information emanating from the public sector is a fundamental source of possible new content, services and jobs. But first, what do we mean by "content"?

"Content" is a wide and fluid concept, that changes according to the community addressing it: mostly text material for some, internet content for others, audiovisual material for the broadcasting community. Therefore it may prove difficult to get everybody to agree a straightforward definition on what "content" actually means.

Content spans different domains such as online entertainment, e-commerce applications, publishing, education, as well as many public services.

In the digital economy, it covers all types of information, text, images, videoclips, sounds that can be transmitted and/or transacted over the networks. It is the "water" flowing in the pipes.

The importance of content

Content is in all its forms therefore a crucial component of the "digital economy and society". Digital content is also a vital vehicle helping to preserve, export and add value to our cultural heritage.

On the "fixed" Internet users have been getting plenty of information for free. One of the consequences is that they are drowning in it, and getting frustrated when they try to filter the information necessary.

The time is ripe for tailored, customised and easily accessible content that users are ready to pay for. If you want these services you have to give Europeans content that is relevant to them, which means that it is both customised to their needs (in terms of language and culture) and adapted to where they are (i.e., localised). These are the keywords characterising our content policy. This is the key question for mobile internet services.

Our policy is about bringing different worlds together and lowering barriers for the exploitation and development of multilingual personalised content services on the networks.

So how does public sector information fit into this picture?

What is public sector information?

Firstly, what is public sector information?

Some examples:

  • Financial and business information is collected by a number of Ministries and government organisations.

  • Legal information and administrative information is public sector information par excellence.

  • Geographical information relevant to transport and tourism, such as maps, traffic data, and so on, is also available in public sector agencies.

  • Tourist information is gathered and published by public sector bodies at different levels of government.

Why is this content important?

In the first place, Public sector information is important for European citizens. It will facilitate their interaction with the administration, will allow them to keep informed on recent developments, and has the potential to increase their participation in the democratic process.

Why is public sector information important economically?

Firstly - all firms need information for decision making

A Europe-wide dimension to public sector information is therefore essential for firms working in a pan-European environment, and is very important for the functioning of Europe's internal market. Examples include information on export-procedures, public tenders, situations in local markets, etc.

But there is much more to it than that.

The European content industries can re-use public sector information to make added value information products and services.

The Information Society provides huge possibilities for companies to combine data taken from different sources and add value to it, creating new products and services.

Public sector information is therefore an important raw material for this new type of business. There is in fact a clear trend towards the internationalisation of information products in response to the European integration process.

This trend will be reinforced by the shift towards mobile communications.

A mobile information service that stops at the border is not going to be very useful to anyone. Just think of the potential of providing mobile access to environmental information, traffic information, tourist information and administrative information. We must pull down the barriers currently impeding pan-European information products for citizens and business.

15 Member States, 15 different backgrounds

What are these barriers?

To set up a service, covering all the Member States, you will have to face the different rules and practices that exist in all 15 Member States.

So what kind of problems do the information industries encounter if they try and re-use public sector information?

Here are three examples of the many problems they would face:

  • The public sector body concerned does not really have a policy for this type of requests, leading to lengthy internal discussions. Given that time to market can be crucial, this can be very detrimental;

  • There are significant price-differences for the same type of information between different countries. For example, the price a firm has to pay to re-use company balance-sheets varies by about 30 times between the different Member States, showing that different countries use completely different rules and yardsticks to calculate their fees.

  • There is no transparency about the data resources available. A lot of databases and other data resources exist, but no one really has an overview.

Some of the Member States, such as France, the Netherlands and the UK, are currently updating their legal frameworks on the exploitation of public sector information. Others are not.

The situation in the United States

By way of comparison, let's have a look at the United States.

Here, the exploitation of public sector information is facilitated by a legal framework consisting of the following elements:

  • A Freedom of Information Act, ensuring access to government information;

  • Maximum fees limited to the cost of reproduction and dissemination;

  • No government copyright;

  • No restrictions on exploitation and reuse.

The basic idea is rather straightforward: the government makes broadly available all the information it collects when executing its public tasks. The content industries add value to this raw material to sell information products or services.

This has led to a considerable market for information products based on public sector information.

In fact, this market is estimated to be up to five times the size of the European market, giving a considerable competitive edge to American firms in the field.

The Green Paper on Public Sector information in the Information Society

So what are we doing about it?

In January 1999 the Commission published a Green Paper on Public Sector information in the Information Society launching a broad consultation. The information industries strongly signalled the need for forceful action to improve the conditions for re-use of public sector information throughout Europe.

The eEurope context

I come back to eEurope.

Two actions of the eEurope action plan, adopted by the Feira Council last year, are particularly relevant for the issues we are discussing today:

  • Government online: dealing with electronic access to public services.

  • European digital content for global networks: stimulating the presence of European digital content on the global networks. One of the action lines deals with the exploitation of public sector information.

The eContent Programme is an example of the tools we have to stimulate experimentation by the main economic actors we address with our policy measures.

Towards a directive for the exploitation of public sector information

What is the next step?

The Commission is looking into the possibility to propose a directive for the exploitation of public sector information.

The proposed directive would leave aside the issue of access to information, which is primarily a national or sometimes regional responsibility. Instead, it would lead to a minimum harmonisation of the conditions for the re-use of public sector information in Europe and would considerably increase transparency.

This in turn would lead to a minimum of legal security for companies that want to launch cross-border information services based on public sector information. Such a minimum base is necessary now we are entering a new phase of the Information Society where the digital content resources will be more and more a critical factor.

We are considering what issues should be covered by such a directive. Some of the main elements of a legal text could cover the following issues:

  • A general right to re-use public sector information: public sector information should be exploitable whenever information is generally accessible.

  • Fair trading and Prohibition of exclusive arrangements: exclusive arrangements for the exploitation of public sector information could be limited or banned in future in order to stimulate openness throughout the European market.

  • Pricing: tariffs for re-use of public sector information should be made reasonable and above all transparent. [Note that a right to re-use public sector information would not imply a move towards the situation in the US, where there are practically no costs involved for companies wanting to re-use the information.]

  • Practicalities Example: a generalised availability of online standard licences and of catalogues of data resources could be envisaged.

The Commission will continue to work on its own practices. It is now implementing the regulation on the access to the documents of the Institutions that was adopted by Parliament and Council on 30 May this year. Furthermore it will define a clearer line in relation to the exploitation of the information it holds.

What is our goal?

In conclusion, we have a number of clear key messages:

  • We want to create the conditions for a healthy content and service market on the networks in Europe.

  • Public sector information is an important component of this market, with considerable social implications.

  • There are, however, a number of barriers to exploiting this resource in Europe. These barriers prevent the full impact of public sector information on economic activity and employment.

  • We propose a series of measures to redress the situation and to create better framework conditions for the exploitation of public sector information, just as in the past the Commission has proposed measures to remove barriers to movement, trade and capital.

Thank you for your attention.

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