British voters have been allowed to watch their elected representatives on television since 1989, and on the web since 2002. But when it comes to making footage available for re-use in the web 2.0 age, Parliament seems stuck in the mindset that landed the great agitator William Cobbett in hot water when he first published its proceedings two centuries ago.
While proceedings are open to free viewing, any re-use is subject to licensing by the Speaker of the House of Commons. This states that material "must not be hosted on a searchable website and must not be downloadable". The reason for the restriction, Helen Goodman, parliamentary secretary to the House of the Commons, told MPs earlier this year, "is to ensure that it is not re-edited or reused inappropriately for campaigning or satirical purposes".
Web activist charity MySociety is challenging this position in the latest phase of its campaign to open government up on the web. With the help of a small army of volunteers, it has created a searchable library of video clips of MPs speaking in the Commons, indexed by name and subject, on its website, theyworkforyou.com.
So far, says Steinberg, "they haven't kicked up a fuss". One reason may be that some individual MPs like the idea: on the site's roll of honour, name number 82 is that of Tom Watson MP, a ministerial advocate of free data.
More battles may lie ahead, however. Another MySociety venture, the freedom of information clearing-house site whatdotheyknow.com, has had a head-on collision with Parliament over the issue of copyright. A request for information made through Whatdotheyknow has been refused because "the material could not be posted on the whatdotheyknow web pages without breaching copyright".
The decision, which is being contested by MySociety, has been referred for an internal review. Steinberg says the situation is absurd.
"Parliament is supposed to be the home of the core of transparency and accountability, yet sometimes it seems to be the least responsive and least culturally open of the 100,000 bodies covered by Freedom of Information."
By Michael Cross
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