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JILT 1996 (1) - Andrew Terrett

SCOOP Official Publishing on the Internet

20th November, 1995

One Day Seminar - Library Association, London

Andrew Terrett
University of Warwick.

 

For the lawyer concerned with official publishing on the Internet there can be few issues of more importance than finding out if and when the UK will follow in the footsteps of its American, Australian and Canadian counterparts and provide substantive legal information on the Internet. Therefore, the Standing Committee on Official Publications seminar entitled "Official Publications on the Internet" appeared to be an occasion not to be missed. On this crucial question of what HMSO is going to do, however, this occasion was disappointing. A varied selection of speakers spoke to a mixed audience of both librarians and non-librarians. There were some useful pointers for what may come in the future but few clear answers.

First to speak was Lewis Foreman, Chief Librarian for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who provided "an introduction to official publishing on the Internet" which was in fact a brief introduction to the Internet. This was fairly standard fare providing some familiar statistics such as that there are "tens of thousands of networks" and the often-quoted "thirty million plus users". Having spent a few moments addressing the Defence-based origins of the Internet, he pointed out that it remains insecure for commercial transactions, is a mechanism for linking up undesirable topics, and the information on it cannot necessarily be trusted. With that background in mind we moved to the substance of the day's agenda.

Next to speak was Andrew Mewes, of the Open Government project based in Norwich. Apparently, the history of Government involvement in publishing on the Internet can be traced in Hansard (hard copy only!) to three Parliamentary Questions, which led via a number of reports[1] to the official launch of the CCTA project on 21st September 1994. Placing the text of the 1994 budget was the highwater mark in terms of user accesses, but since then they have endeavoured to maintain timely publication of Government publishing. This speaker made only one truly notable point for this audience which was that publication of the 1994 budget did not affect the sales of the hard-copy version by HMSO. Whether that will still be the case in 1995 we shall see.

A number of impressive statistics were mentioned in passing, such as the fact that a new network is added to the Internet every 30 minutes and a new Web server is added every 10 minutes. This speaker then ran through some useful (but somewhat dull) screenshots of Web pages by organisations such as Ofsted (the schools inspectorate), MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) and the Inland Revenue, which is currently making its new self-assessment form available on the Web in .PDF format. Running out of time, this speaker briefly mentioned that CCTA was looking forward to secure transactions on the Internet which would mean that they would be able to charge user fees for access to Government information. This seemed to take members of the audience by surprise, not only because the speaker was talking about making the Internet service pay but also because he was glossing over what amounts to the privatisation of aspects of Government information provision.

Moray Angus then spoke about how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) managed to get started in electronic publishing on the Internet, which in turn provided an interesting insight into the way in which Government operates; a small number of enthusiasts spent much time attempting to persuade their sceptical bosses. He mentioned that the Minister's concern about security had been proved well founded, in that there had been three known attempts to hack into the server, including one believed to be by a Government hostile to our own!

Chris Pond, of the House of Commons, then spoke about their attempts to join the "Information Super-rat-race" by first pointing out that they were publishing electronically as far back as 1978 through the Prestel system. As to why Hansard does still not have an Internet presence, he pointed to various networking and administrative difficulties but stated optimistically that the House of Commons is committed to the concept of Hansard being available on the Net and furthermore stated that he was "keen to see all those who wish to have access to Hansard to have unlimited access". In pursuit of this aim, they have set up a Electronic Publishing Group that was attempting to balance the evidence of demand with the expected effect on the printed copy. They remain unable to clarify the effects on Parliamentary copyright. Indeed, this speaker appeared to be hinting that these were issues that would ultimately be decided by Government rather than by Parliament.

Lee Chamberlain then spoke on behalf of the Treasury, which launched its own Web site on 15th November, 1994. He was able to point to some impressive statistics, such as that in Budget week 1994 there were 33,000 user accesses and in the week following there were some 27,000. However, much of this talk was dedicated to comments on how to make an otherwise unappealing Web site more interesting; a talk by a "techie" more interested in style than content. The fact that HMSO owns the copyright in the materials was mentioned as being problematic for the Treasury.

Next came Michael Thomson, of the British Council, who spoke about how they are using the Web to effect the primary goal, which is to be "the principal agent for cultural relations" between the UK and other nations, and hence their Web site is intended to be an information gateway to the whole of the UK.

Finally, Neil Smith of the Ordnance Survey gave what turned out to be one of the more interesting of the morning's talks. He admitted from the beginning that their Web server acted as a site for information about information. Those Web users seeking digitised maps of the UK will find themselves sadly disappointed. The reason for this is that apparently the OS is an executive agency with a cost recovery target of 80% unlike their US counterpart, which has a cost recovery target of a mere 7% and consequently makes an enormous amount of digitised material available over the Internet. Some chilling statements were included in this presentation such as "we have many customers and we want to optimise our publicity and commercial transactions." Does HMSO work within the same parameters one wonders?

Of most interest to this audience would have been the speaker from HMSO who was Robert Stutely, Head of Publications Technology unit. Sensing a polite yet quietly hostile audience, he steered well clear of the contentious copyright issue and instead talked about how HMSO got started in electronic publishing. He talked about how HMSO managed to put its catalogue on the Web, then tackled the Financial Statement and Budget Report. This year they plan to do the same. He highlighted some of the lessons learnt such as the need to isolate their own server, the need to mirror sites. the need for "high quality presentation" presentation on the Web, the need for a multi-disciplined team, and the need to run a Web site that would take advantage of new HTML features while still remaining accessible to those with older technology.

This was hardly ground-breaking material. Indeed what this member of the audience really wanted to know was that when would HMSO follow in the footsteps of its US, Canadian and Australian counterparts? On that issue, all the speaker could offer was the following;

"We are concerned about the effects on printed version. Our aim is however to make information available to anyone who requires it." What he did not say was quite how and whether they would be required to pay for it.

When asked whether HMSO operated on a cost recovery or profit basis he stated that Government was setting out objectives for cost recovery which included a small operating "benefit" which this year would amount to approximately one million pounds. To most members of the audience this sounded like a profit motive dressed up in another language. Their planned developments -include setting up secure transactions for account customers and later for credit card customers, adding more subject catalogues, list books-in-print and providing more multimedia facilities. What then followed was a series of speakers looking at Official Publications from the users perspective which included academics, business users, librarians, etc.

Overall this event was disappointing - there were some very tricky and contentious issues that could have been addressed, not least of which is the position of HMSO, Crown copyright and the fact that it is soon to be privatised. Instead the audience was treated to a series of speakers who were more interested in talking about what they had done on the Web rather than the policy issues behind their actions. The Civil Service approach to the area hindered what might otherwise have been an interesting and thought-provoking seminar.

 

Footnotes

 

1. Notably the Government Consultative Report "Information Superhighways: Opportunities for Public Sector Applications in the UK", 22nd June, 1995.

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