This is mind-boggling. Josh Marshall reports that Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) wants to prevent you and me from having direct access to weather data that the Federal government collects. Instead, he wants it to be available only for redistribution by paid services:
This page right here is the one I go to to check the weather. It’s put out by the National Weather Service. It’s a lot like some commercial ones, only it has more information, costs nothing and contains no ads.
But as the Carpetbagger Report notes here, Sen. Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania has introduced a bill that would ban the federal government’s meteorologists from making this information available for free since that creates a problem for outfits like The Weather Channel and AccuWeather, which want to sell it.
I looked up the proposed National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005, and Marshall’s report is exactly right:
The Secretary of Commerce shall not provide, or assist other entities in providing, a [weather-related] product or service … that is or could be provided by the private sector unless … the Secretary determines that the private sector is unwilling or unable to provide such product or service …
Data, information, guidance, forecasts, and warnings shall be issued … through a set of data portals designed for volume access by commercial providers of products or services …
Marshall calls this a rip-off, and he’s absolutely right. This would be a taxpayer-funded gift to the private sector and a huge setback to the cause of making information publicly available. In 2003, a committee from the nonpartisan National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, released a report called Fair Weather, and concluded that the cost of making this data public is trivial:
The committee noted that for NWS to fulfill its mission of issuing timely weather warnings, it must collect high-quality global data and develop and run atmospheric models, so in most instances the large and expensive infrastructure needed to generate forecasts has already been paid for by taxpayers. These data, models, and forecasts are made available to the public at marginal additional cost, satisfying the government’s obligation to make its information widely accessible.
The NRC also reviewed the original National Weather Service policy, which was written in 1991, and concluded that the Internet changed everything:
[The committee] called the current policy ambiguous and said its guidelines were “untenable” because there may be good reasons for the agency to continue to carry out certain activities for the public, even if the private sector could do them. Moreover, any language that suggests NWS should not disseminate information electronically and to as wide an audience as possible is inconsistent with federal regulations requiring full and open access to data. Finally, the policy was written before use of the Internet became widespread, altering the capabilities of both NWS and the private sector, and the way they interact. …
The report emphasizes that NWS should continue to pursue activities that are essential to protecting life and property and enhancing the national economy, including issuing forecasts and providing unrestricted access to publicly funded observations. Weather-related damages amount to $20 billion a year in the United States.
NWS should make its observational data, models, and other products available in Internet-accessible digital form, the committee added. The information should be stored in a standard format that can be accessed by the public and used by all those involved in the weather and climate enterprise.
So why propose this bill? This story from the Palm Beach Post includes a pair of revealing quotes:
Barry Myers, AccuWeather’s executive vice president, said the bill would improve public safety by making the weather service devote its efforts to hurricanes, tsunamis and other dangers, rather than duplicating products already available from the private sector.
“The National Weather Service has not focused on what its core mission should be, which is protecting other people’s lives and property,” said Myers, whose company is based in State College, Pa. Instead, he said, “It spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year, every day, producing forecasts of ‘warm and sunny.’”
Santorum made similar arguments April 14 when introducing his bill. He also said expanded federal services threaten the livelihoods of private weather companies.
“It is not an easy prospect for a business to attract advertisers, subscribers or investors when the government is providing similar products and services for free,” Santorum said.
No, it certainly isn’t easy to compete by trying to convince people to pay for information that is collected by a government agency for the public good and made widely and freely available by that same government agency. Maybe the AccuWeather folks need to rethink their business plan. They were founded in 1962, so they’ve surely had to reinvent themselves a few times to deal with changes in technology. Other companies have figured out how to add value to publicly available information and charge customers for it. The privately owned EDGAR Online, for instance, sells reports that you can get for free from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s EDGAR database. They’re not asking for Congress to lock up the SEC archives to improve their business prospects.
In fact, I was able to look up the full text of Sen. Santorum’s bill using the free Thomas database at the Library of Congress. The tagline on that page says it all: “In the Spirit of Thomas Jefferson, a service of The Library of Congress.” Sen. Santorum would be well-served to think more about Jefferson and less about fund-raising. Although I’m sure his support for AccuWeather’s quest to shut down public access to NWS data has nothing to do with the campaign contributions from the Myers family (including AccuWeather’s president and founder Joel Myers).
If Sen. Santorum has his way, raw data that can be of enormous use to individuals, researchers, and the public would be locked up behind a paid firewall, with fees going to corporations. Every branch of government should strive to make as much information as possible available to the people. The rush to privatize, monetize, and classify information is insane. This would be a very good issue to write your Senator about.