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The public domain audit   Post comment Printer friendly versionMore notes

The public domain audit
public domain
Wednesday, August 01, 2001 03:18 GMT

A proposition to the community of those concerned with the public domain...

As you all know, many business magazines and the UN publish rankings of countries or cities according to various parameters.

with UN it's usually things like quality of environment, levels of corruption, per capita income etc.

for business publications it's all about doing business - so looks at things like business law and effectiveness of its implementation, infrastructure for business, skills of workforce etc.

these things are significant because people read them and make decisions on the basis of them. governments (/cities/states) therefore want to look good in these things. the fact is that if you say "the government is corrupt" you're not saying anything that anyone's going ot take any notice of; but if you say "the government of XXX scored 15 out of a possible 100 points for lawfulness and integrity which puts it behind XXX and XXX" it is much more of a spur to action.

isn't it time for such a ranking for the quality of the public domain? An international public domain audit?

the last couple of years have brought the issue of the public domain and governments' attitudes towards it to a head as the Internet has erased many of the forms of information privilege previously enjoyed by institutions of power and facilitated "horizontal" communications between groups of people with shared interests within and across state boundaries. governments have responded for the most part with fairly draconian legislation that makes clear their unease about this new situation.

zygmunt baumann talks in his book, "Globalization: The Human Consequences," of the "striptease of the State" during which it gaily divests itself of its roles as regulator of financial markets, labour policy,
corporate behaviour etc, and is left in the spotlight with nothing except its power to repress its workforce and deliver it up to the needs of the global economy.

In this context the freedom of speech of citizens seems a liability - you don't know what people might say, and perhaps they'll embarrass us! it's rather
like, at the corporate level, the humiliating antics of rogue employees who start having a food fight in the office in front of the big boss from overseas who happens to be visiting. though they may support "globalism" they find it difficult to be joyful about the new global conversations that their citizens are
able to engage in.

So it seems to me that the process of clamping down on scholars, programmers, political figures, and indeed the general public, should be incorporated into some kind of public domain index. this would give ratings
to governments for their position on various things (percentage of emails, phone calls tapped, availability of certain kind of information, degree of
freedom of expression on the web or in the streets, number of people jailed for crimes of opinion or expression, restrictions on travel of scholars,
political figures etc). it would be issued as an annual publication and as a continuously updated website (with extracts from legislation, relevant news
reports, statistics etc).

there would be 3 main applications of this:

-- it would allow us to build a detailed picture of how the public domain compares between states - and, crucially, how it is changing over time. Currently - i believe - we have only anecdotes to give us an indication of this.

-- it would act as an international watchdog on governments (quite possibly the 'good guys' would not come out on top in a study like this). if it were conducted with integrity, such a study would receive massive press coverage each time it was issued and would bring the otherwise relatively abstract issue of "the public domain" home to a wide audience. there is
nothing like numbers and rankings to make things tangible.

-- it would allow people who have uncertainties about the legal consequences of their public actions or statements to consult a central, independent source.

-- i think that the increasingly stern attitudes of governments all over the world towards the public behaviour of their citizens would make this relevant
for everyone.

-- What I am talking about is a mammoth project with much international cooperation and probably significant institutional support. I post it in order to see what people think of the idea and how they think it might be undertaken. It is not my field at all, and others will have much more intelligent things to say about it than i do.

I look forward to hearing your responses.