April 23, 2005

Santorum + Accuweather -- NY Times weighs in

The NY Times Business website has a wonderful article on the legislation proposed by Senator Rick Santorum which will take down the free NOAA Weather website and force people to use commercial (either fee-based or pop-ups and advertising) sites: The article starts off with a bit of background:
There is a long historical background to the administration's choices, plus a variety of recent shifts and circumstances. The history stretches to the early days of the republic, and the idea that government-sponsored research in science and technology could bolster private business growth. Progress in farming, led by the land-grant universities, demonstrated this concept in the 19th century. Sputnik-era science, culminating in the work that led to the Internet, did the same in the 20th century.

In the last two decades, this old idea has been dressed up with concepts like "network economics" and "increasing return to scale." The results include the widely accepted understanding that the relationship of public science and private business is more important than ever. An environment in which the exchange of information is timely and inexpensive, rather than slow and costly, can foster the growth of many industries.
And the events of the last few years:
During President Bill Clinton's first term, the Office of Management and Budget issued a bold new document on balancing these interests. Although it reeked of "bridge to the 21st century"-style futurism, it had actually been prepared and approved by the previous Bush administration and was released under President Clinton virtually unchanged. The document was called O.M.B. Circular A-130, and its crucial argument was that the government should distribute information as quickly, as broadly and as cheaply as possible - technically, "at no more than the cost of dissemination" - and that it should do so via the most modern channels available. Of course, that meant the Internet.

The Clinton-era information wars followed. Mead Data Central, then the owner of Nexis-Lexis, had enjoyed an exclusive contract to distribute data from S.E.C. filings, at steep prices. After a lawsuit and a change in policy, that filing data became available free, over the Internet. Struggles with other companies, with similar results, occurred in the Patent Office, the I.R.S. and other agencies.
And the meat of the story:
One of the most important and contentious struggles, mentioned here last spring, appears to be turning out in a way that will burnish the Bush administration's pro-tech record. This is the "fair weather" controversy. The question at its core is whether the National Weather Service, which uses taxpayer funds to collect nearly all weather readings, will be allowed to make its information available through the Internet - or instead required to sluice it all to commercial weather services, as the S.E.C. once did with Mead.

The famous Circular A-130 argued strongly for Internet distribution, as did a special study of the question by the National Research Council in 2003. The weather service went ahead with such sites - and they have proved enormously popular. During the three months last fall when four hurricanes struck the South, weather service sites received nine billion hits - breaking a government record of six billion hits on NASA sites in the three months after the Mars rover landing last spring.

From an interest in aviation, I often visit the weather service's marvelous Aviation Digital Data Web site, at adds.aviationweather.noaa.gov. Without a doubt, it has saved many lives by making it easy for pilots to understand where the dangers from icing, thunderstorms and turbulence are. Last fall, the government invited public comment on the weather service's new strategy and received overwhelming support. Just after the election, the service announced that it would officially embrace an open-information policy.
Emphasis mine -- this bill is being put forth to take away from taxpayers and to directly benefit a small number of companies. Write your Senators and tell them that you do not want this bill passed. This is the camel's nose under the tent.

Posted by DaveH at April 23, 2005 4:11 PM