I was offline yesterday and thus missed the official launch of the federal government’s open data portal. Like many, I think is great that the government has finally moved on this issue as Canada has trailed far behind many other countries in making government data openly available for reuse for far too long. The immediate reaction to the launch included some disappointment at the licensing terms, as David Eaves quickly pointed to restrictive language that would even stop someone from using the data “in any way which, in the opinion of Canada, may bring disrepute to or prejudice the reputation of Canada.” Treasury Board Secretary Stockwell Day responded to the concern by indicating that was not the intent and that the language would be addressed.
That too is good news, but I think it is important to identify the source of the licensing language and the larger issue at play. First, the licensing terms, including the disrepute provision, have been used by the government for several years. The licence terms at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, which has offered open data for several years, features the same language on a webpage that was last modified in 2008. In fact, the GeoConnections program, which disseminates geographic data, published a 184 page best practices guide in 2008 (and that was version 2) that discusses licensing terms in great detail and includes several samples. In each case, the licence includes the disrepute provision. While it may be true that few people ever read the licence – Transport Canada published the new GC Open Data Portal licence weeks before yesterday’s launch and no one seemed to notice – the terms are important both because they can be used to later restrict activities and because they reflect the government’s view of the rights of Canadians to their data.
The government may revise the licence by removing the disrepute term, but I think a larger issue will remain.
Open government data is about two big changes for government – public access and control. The public access side of open government is relatively easy. Whereas in the past government data was often hidden or difficult for the public to access, the Internet enables unlimited, free distribution and use. Open data portals in countries around the world give citizens the opportunity to access, use, and reuse data for social, economic, and personal benefit.
But open government data is about more than public access and use. It is also about a change in control, where governments recognize that they are largely relinquishing control over much of their data and how it is used. For governments accustomed to crown copyright and the ability to assert control (the U.S. has the most open licence because it started from the premise that it does not have control over public data), this is an even bigger change than public access.
It is readily apparent that many governments have recognized the shift in control – Australia and New Zealand both publish many of their datasets using Creative Commons licences, which are understandable to the average person and require nothing more than attribution. The right to control or impose restrictions and conditions on how the information is used is gone. The UK open government licence contains a few more conditions, but it too resembles the Creative Commons model.
The Canadian model, on the other hand, is a six page, 2,000 word licence agreement that is incomprehensible to the average citizen. If licences could talk, this one would say “this is our data and here is how we the government will allow you the public to use it.” But open government means accepting that government data is the public’s data and that the government’s obligation is not to control it, but to make it as freely and unconditionally available to the public as reasonably possible. The right approach in addressing concerns over the new Canada open data portal is not to make a small change in the licence terms by dropping the disrepute provision. It is to drop the current licence altogether, instead adopting a simplified, open licence that tells Canadians it is their data and (subject to reasonable attribution requirements) they are free to access, use, and reuse it without restrictions.