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.