The Privatization Of Public Data Sets A Bad Precedent

from the please-make-it-stop dept

Last summer we wrote about a troubling lawsuit filed by a company called Public Engines against a competitor called Report See. Each company runs their own open website that reports crime data. Public Engines runs CrimeReports.com. Report See runs SpotCrime.com. They have very different business models, however. CrimeReports is ad free. It makes its money because Public Engines signs expensive deals with local police departments around the country to take their crime data and format it for better use. SpotCrime, on the other hand, whose business model is based on advertising, collects whatever data it can from public sources, including police departments who publish the data, newspaper crime reports... and, at one point, the data it found on CrimeReports.com.

It's this bit that got CrimeReports.com so upset. It filed a lawsuit alleging a whole bunch of things, all of which seemed pretty questionable. There was a Computer Fraud and Abuse Act claim, which is the anti-hacking law that has been abused quite a lot recently. But there was no "hacking" going on here, as the data was (a) public data and (b) posted on an open website. Claiming that it's hacking to get the data is simply ridiculous. Then there was a breach of contract claim, but, of course, Public Engines has no contract with Report See, so again it's difficult to see this claim making any sense. Then things get bizarre. Public Engines claimed that SpotCrime violates a cyber-terrorism law. That one is so ridiculous it doesn't even need a response. On top of that there were false advertising and the once-again popular "hot news" claims -- again, neither of which makes any sense. There was no false advertising, and this is data, not news, so there's no hot news claim.

Unfortunately, however, it looks like the legal costs were a bit much for Report See and SpotCrime, and it finally agreed to settle the lawsuit, and drop the data, rather than get a ruling on the legality of it. While this doesn't set any sort of legal precedent, there are reasonable worries that it can and will create significant chilling effects in similar situations.

But the even larger issue is how this kind of privatization of public data is being allowed, and these kinds of ridiculous lawsuits create a path for these private companies to make such public data proprietary even though the courts have long rejected the idea of copyright on data collections. Without copyright, Public Engines was still able to break out a whole list of absolutely silly legal claims, and they were enough to get Report See to back down. This should be terrifying for anyone who believes in the importance of transparency in government and public data.

Oh, and one final point, just to ward off anyone who thinks that this data "needs" to be privatized in order to get it released to the public in the first place. That's simply ridiculous. First of all, it's entirely possible for police departments to figure out ways to release the data to the public directly, and I'm surprised that standard reporting software hasn't popped up yet, but I imagine it's only a matter of time. Second, the idea that CrimeReports.com couldn't compete against SpotCrime.com if it couldn't keep the data proprietary is simply ridiculous. First of all, if you compare the two websites directly, it's not hard to see that CrimeReports' website is simply nicer and much more user friendly. There's no reason it can't compete (and compete strongly) even if SpotCrime is copying its data.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

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    The eejit (profile), Feb 24th, 2011 @ 3:47am

    Sometimes, I wonder if humanity shouldn't just be given nukes and told 'Just go nuts!' instead of this insane bullshit.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 4:34am

    Well there are other databases too.

    This one documents the reports of police misconduct in the U.S.
    http://www.injusticeeverywhere.com/

     

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    mike, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 4:41am

    How is this any different than Google and Bing's current drama?

    In my opinion, the lawsuit is completely justified. Just because data is in the open doesn't mean you can just scrape it and make it your own.

     

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      Howard the Duck, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 5:01am

      Re:

      Google and Bing's drama? There are hundreds of sites that use public telephone numbers and other info freely available on the web. What if one of those aggregating sites claimed the info was all theirs and sued? Ridiculous. If you want to find out who owned your house last, you would search the public records, are you saying that data should be owned by some private company?

       

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      Not an electronic Rodent, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 5:01am

      Re:

      Just because data is in the open doesn't mean you can just scrape it and make it your own.
      So how do you consider publically available data can be used? And in what way do you consider it different from a copyrighted film being derivative of a Public Domain story for example?

       

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      Planespotter (profile), Feb 24th, 2011 @ 5:24am

      Re:

      "Just because data is in the open doesn't mean you can just scrape it and make it your own."

      err... but ....err CrimeReports.com are taking data that is out in the open and making it theirs, they may be getting the openly available data by cutting deals with police forces directly but the data is still out there. So which side are you on, because your arguement from this side of the screen doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

       

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      Bengie, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 5:25am

      Re:

      "Just because data is in the open doesn't mean you can just scrape it and make it your own"

      It was public data. EVERYONE owns it.

       

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        MrWilson, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 9:58am

        Re: Re:

        Silly freetard. Don't you know that our benevolent copyright overlords own everything? Also, it's illegal to give anything away for free, even if you got it for free. Everything must have a price!

        Wait... crap. This is in the bill we just wrote and passed off to our Congress-drones. This isn't law yet, technically, but you should start acting like it is because it's only a matter of time (and money).

         

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      Anonymous Coward, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 5:38am

      Re:

      It means exactly that, what else open means?

      http://www.usa.gov/Topics/Reference_Shelf/Data.shtml
      http://www.census.gov/compendia/stat ab/cats/law_enforcement_courts_prisons.html

      PACER.GOV

      PACER is available to anyone who registers for an account.

      The nearly one million PACER users include attorneys, pro se filers, government agencies, trustees, data collectors, researchers, educational and financial institutions, commercial enterprises, the media, and the general public.


      If it is not open it is not useful, if people can't make it their own to make use of it, that data is not open.

       

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      abc gum, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 5:40am

      Re:

      Another "how is this any different from ..." post

      Yawn, more coffee please.

       

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    Schmoo, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 5:24am

    Yoohoo...? Anonymous...?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 5:25am

    I am trying to find the "right to scrape data" in the constitution, couldn't find it. Anyone?

     

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      Miff (profile), Feb 24th, 2011 @ 5:38am

      Re:

      It's not in the Constitution, but it is recognized in common law via Feist v Rural.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 5:52am

        Re: Re:

        it would be true only if the content was exclusively public facts, with no manipulation. If any work is done on the original data (outside of typesetting), then it is no longer just public data.

         

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            Anonymous Coward, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 6:08am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            That is a horrible ruling. I am surprised Mike hasn't been all over this. It is a ruling that basically says "Create walled gardens".

            By that logic, publishing a book would make the contents publically available and able to be scraped. It's a very, very poor judgment.

             

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              Anonymous Coward, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 6:19am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              But...but...the law!

               

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              Anonymous Coward, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 6:27am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              BTW, there is an entire industry(i.e. Nielsen) that use scrapping to make it millions each year are you going to sue them?

              It is a multi-billion dollar industry too.
              They are also the darkside of scrapping, because they collect public private information and sell it for all kinds of purposes.

              Also scrapping is used by the government and enforcement agencies.

              I don't think you actually know how far that rabbit hole goes, because if you did you wouldn't be surprised that courts are upholding those decisions.

              It is in their interest too, to not outlaw scrapping.

              By that logic, publishing a book would make the contents publically available and able to be scraped. It's a very, very poor judgment.


              No, people wouldn't be able to scrape a book that is copyrighted, only those things that are not, like data, lists and etc.

               

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              Anonymous Coward, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 6:38am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              Stop trying to justify monopoly. Monopoly never has been the most efficient way to deliver goods and services, and it never will be.

              Note that if it truly is public data, that would suggest that no one would be able to have a monopoly on it. Walled-gardens only work when there is an enforced monopoly on the information, or when the value added in the walled garden clearly exceeds what is available anywhere else.
              The consequence of the ruling is that you have to compete on the basis of how useful and "user-friendly" your site is.
              You can't merely claim that because you published public data first that you now own it.
              You never owned it in the first place.

               

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          Miff (profile), Feb 28th, 2011 @ 10:18pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          While that may be true, if the layout and other work done on the data such as formatting is all stripped away, one again has "exclusively public facts, with no manipulation".

           

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        Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2011 @ 10:10am

        Re: Re:

        Thank you, Miff. It seems these debaters don't quite understand copyright.
        For the rest of you, copyright allows exclusivity to the EXPRESSION of information, not the data itself.
        via Wikipedia's page on Feist v. Rural:
        "In regard to collections of facts, O'Connor states that copyright can only apply to the creative aspects of collection: the creative choice of what data to include or exclude, the order and style in which the information is presented, etc., but not on the information itself. If Feist were to take the directory and rearrange them it would destroy the copyright owned in the data."

         

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      Anonymous Coward, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 5:41am

      Re:

      I am trying to find "right to own data" in the constitution, couldn't find it. Anyone?

       

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    Josef Anvil (profile), Feb 24th, 2011 @ 5:28am

    Big fan, but.....

    Mike, Im gunna start by saying I love your blog and agree with a lot of it but....

    This post is inflammatory and misleading as most of the trolls you shine the spotlight on.

    Yeah its a shame that Company A forced Company B to back down with bogus claims, but as you stated there was no legal precedent set. While I can certainly understand your outrage and concern about a "chilling effect"; when I read the title, it certainly implied that there was some precedent set. I was halfway done with the article when I read there was none.

    Kudos on a great blog in general, but this article more of faint flickering of things that "might" come to pass, IF a bunch of bogus legal arguments are accepted by a court.

    It looks like Company A's legal team just looked in the big book of "internet laws" and chose all of them, thinking "one of these HAS to be be able to protect our client's business model." Since its a crime reporting fight, I'm surprised there were no shouts of "but..but...but.. THE CHILDREN"

     

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      abc gum, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 5:42am

      Re: Big fan, but.....

      Throw everything - see what sticks

       

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      The eejit (profile), Feb 24th, 2011 @ 5:49am

      Re: Big fan, but.....

      Hey, stop being logical, you![/joke]

       

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      vivaelamor (profile), Feb 24th, 2011 @ 6:01am

      Re: Big fan, but.....

      "While I can certainly understand your outrage and concern about a "chilling effect"; when I read the title, it certainly implied that there was some precedent set. I was halfway done with the article when I read there was none. "

      I think the point of the title was that the case is a precedent in causing a chilling effect and accepting the privatisation of public data. I don't see how the use of precedent in that context is misleading.

      "more of faint flickering of things that "might" come to pass, IF a bunch of bogus legal arguments are accepted by a court. "

      The article seems to, if anything, suggest that these legal arguments wouldn't be accepted by a court. The issue of a chilling effect is the prohibitive nature of expensive lawsuits forcing a settlement, not on the possibility that a lawsuit may be successful.

      'Since its a crime reporting fight, I'm surprised there were no shouts of "but..but...but.. THE CHILDREN"'

      The thing that pisses me off most about this story is the evident failure of authorities to provide useful data as a matter of duty, especially in the absence of reliable official statistics. "But..but..but.. THE CHILDREN" is the kind of sentiment that should support this data being freely available.

       

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      MrWilson, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 10:04am

      Re: Big fan, but.....

      You seem to be confusing the semantics. A precedent was set by the acquiescence of the defendant in settling. No legal precedent was set, however, because the issue wasn't concluded by the court.

      Not all precedents are legal precedents.

       

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    NullOp, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 6:24am

    Public Data

    Crime data is certainly important and should be readily available to the public. As someone interested in genealogy I am somewhat outraged that the public data concerning births, deaths and marriages is held hostage by companies like Ancestry.com. This data should be made available on the web by our government not some private company. Why? WE ALREADY PAID FOR IT ONCE IN OUR TAXES! Now, thanks to some cozy arrangement, we are required to pay for the data that has already been collected by our government. Screwed again!

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 24th, 2011 @ 6:42am

    Some public officials may agree with you, the privatization of information can be hazardous for public servants some times.

    IndyStar: Indiana attorney general fires deputy over 'live ammunition' tweets aimed at Wisconsin protestors

     

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    Steve R. (profile), Feb 24th, 2011 @ 8:41am

    Rick Santorum and AccuWeather

    Given today's ever more onerous and repressive political climate, we may seem more attempts at privatizing public data. Back in 2005 Rick Santorum, a Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, introduced legislation to prevent the weather service from providing weather information that private companies provide, such as AccuWeather. Senator aiming to nix federal weather forecasts enjoyed AccuWeather money.

    Privatization is a bad idea.

     

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    irked, Nov 21st, 2012 @ 7:45pm

    victimization

    There has not been a voice for those affected by police retaliation and as long as technology continues to feed that bias for what "seems" correct, the constitutional rights of honest lives are at stake. It could be anyone next and that's a scary thing.

     

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