Free Our Data: the blog

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

The “Jersey question”: what if the profits of free data move offshore?

I gave a talk last month about the Free Our Data campaign to be2camp (which had the aim of getting the idea of better sharing of data through wikis and other social systems for architecture).

Amidst it there were questions, and among the questions was this one: “if you make all the data available for free download, what’s to stop companies from relocating to Jersey – which pays no UK tax – and operating from there?”

That would mean that the UK taxpayer now wouldn’t be getting the benefit of revenues to the Ordnance Survey through its licensing fees, and wouldn’t get the tax revenue on the company that would now be headquartered in Jersey. So you’d have higher taxation costs (since the OS would now be funded centrally) and no obvious economic benefit.

So what’s the answer?

We don’t know.

The government has struggled with this problem over issues such as gambling, where companies have preferred to locate in places like Gibraltar or far-flung Caribbean countries with less strict tax regimes and offer services online. There’s a money flow out of the UK with those too.

One possible argument is that even if the data were sold and the profits taken abroad, the UK economy would benefit because the information is being made more widely available – and that has to have a benefit. There could even be a multiplier effect, as there tends to be with any commodity: making steel bars is a profitable business (or can be), but making buildings is a much more profitable one. Perhaps in time, with a free data model, the OS data would be the steel bars of the building: necessary, but not the biggest part of the value chain.

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