Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens


Why aren’t public servants’ details public?

What are the penalties for releasing information gathered at public expense which is sold to the public? Why, huge fines and imprisonment. That’s the reality behind the Civil Service Year Book web page.

There, you can buy a copy of the book with names and phone numbers of thousands of civil servants for £70 – and get online access to the web page and its search function.

But if we were to make the username and password available to the public, we could be prosecuted for copyright infringement, with both civil and criminal liability. (If The Guardian did it, its editor could be sent to jail for up to six months.)

Does that make sense? If the information is gathered anyway, couldn’t outside organisations create better versions of it – rather as satnav companies make use of the data gathered by organisations like Ordnance Survey? Why create a monopoly in the data (by licensing it to The Stationery Office, a private venture between Apax Ventures and the TSO staff)? Isn’t it our data, since our taxes pay the people included and the collection of that data?

Other countries do make the information available – for instance in Seattle, where a listing of government staff is online.

Read more at Why Sir Humphrey won’t give us his phone number and give us your thoughts in the comments below, or by emailing us at tech@guardian.co.uk

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