Editorial: The price of data

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"Value add?"

The issue of public/private competition has always been complex and nuanced. And it is not a new issue.

But the Web and the easy availability of government data have added to the simmering tensions among commercial publishers and public-interest groups.

Today, federal agencies can easily make large amounts of information available to the public directly and inexpensively.

Officials at private-sector organizations argue that the government should not compete with their businesses. But broader

issues exist, such as the public's right to know and access information that they paid for with taxes.

The examples are numerous. The Internal Revenue Service was one of the first to confront the competition issue when IRS officials sought to allow citizens to file their tax returns online for free. The proposal seemed to make perfect sense. Electronic filing is seen as a boon for

the tax agency because it all but eliminates errors.

But tax-preparing organizations balked. They have since relented, and last year, some taxpayers could file their taxes online at IRS.gov for free.

The Library of Congress' Thomas Web site, which posts bills from Congress, seems like another clear-cut example. Thomas has not been expanded largely because officials at the companies that provide bill-tracking services have argued that the government is infringing on their businesses.

Officials at the private-sector companies argue, of course, that the services they provide add value to the widely available information.

Some areas should be off-limits for government. For example, pushing data to users is something that is better left to private companies in most cases. However, government information should be available to people who seek it.

That could leave private companies in the sometimes unpleasant position of reassessing what value their services actually add. And in fact it is competition.

But it is exactly that kind of competition that spurs innovation. Rather than attempting to stop change, companies need to innovate so they can earn their pay.

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