Letter: Selling the right to know

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The Independent Online
You report that a software company cannot afford to market a program containing food nutritional data because the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has given exclusive rights to the data to the Royal Society of Chemistry ("Dieters pay as calorie counting is privatised", 22 September).

This should come as no surprise: the Government has long encouraged departments to market information. Indeed, DTI guidelines on "tradeable information" state: "information properties ... are only 'tradeable' if someone else wants them" - information will be made freely available to the public only so long as no one asks for it. As soon as there is a demand, a price can be attached. The 1994 "open government" code of practice offers no safeguard. It does not apply to information "provided as part of an existing charged service".

Departments are told not to introduce their own information service on an "uncommercial basis" where a similar service is provided electronically by the private sector. They are also warned against licensing the same data to more than one company with a particular market - as this "may allow no one to create real returns". The Government's approach is clear: information is a commodity which can be bought and sold like any other.

Maurice Frankel

Campaign for Freedom of Information, London EC1