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<nettime> The public domain audit
Rana Dasgupta on Wed, 22 Aug 2001 19:38:30 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The public domain audit

     [also To: <reader-list {AT} sarai.net>--nettime mod]

A proposition to the community of those concerned with
the public domain...

As you all know, many business magazines and the UN
publish rankings of countries or cities according to
various parameters.

with UN it's usually things like quality of
environment, levels of corruption, per capita income

for business publications it's all about doing
business - so looks at things like business law and
effectiveness of its implementation, infrastructure
for business, skills of workforce etc.

these things are significant because people read them
and make decisions on the basis of them.  governments
(/cities/states) therefore want to look good in these
things.  the fact is that if you say "the government
is corrupt" you're not saying anything that anyone's
going ot take any notice of; but if you say "the
government of XXX scored 15 out of a possible 100
points for lawfulness and integrity which puts it
behind XXX and XXX" it is much more of a spur to

isn't it time for such a ranking for the quality of
the public domain?  An international public domain

the last couple of years have brought the issue of the
public domain and governments' attitudes towards it to
a head as the Internet has erased many of the forms of
information privilege previously enjoyed by
institutions of power and facilitated "horizontal"
communications between groups of people with shared
interests within and across state boundaries. 
governments have responded for the most part with
fairly draconian legislation that makes clear their
unease about this new situation.

zygmunt baumann talks in his book, "Globalization: The
Human Consequences," of the "striptease of the State"
during which it gaily divests itself of its roles as
regulator of financial markets, labour policy,
corporate behaviour etc, and is left in the spotlight
with nothing except its power to repress its workforce
and deliver it up to the needs of the global economy. 

In this context the freedom of speech of citizens
seems a liability - you don't know what people might
say, and perhaps they'll embarrass us!  it's rather
like, at the corporate level, the humiliating antics
of rogue employees who start having a food fight in
the office in front of the big boss from overseas who
happens to be visiting.  though they may support
"globalism" they find it difficult to be joyful about
the new global conversations that their citizens are
able to engage in.

So it seems to me that the process of clamping down on
scholars, programmers, political figures, and indeed
the general public, should be incorporated into some
kind of public domain index.  this would give ratings
to governments for their position on various things
(percentage of emails, phone calls tapped,
availability of certain kind of information, degree of
freedom of expression on the web or in the streets,
number of people jailed for crimes of opinion or
expression, restrictions on travel of scholars,
political figures etc).  it would be issued as an
annual publication and as a continuously updated
website (with extracts from legislation, relevant news
reports, statistics etc).

there would be 3 main applications of this:

--it would allow us to build a detailed picture of how
the public domain compares between states - and,
crucially, how it is changing over time.  Currently -
i believe - we have only anecdotes to give us an
indication of this.

--it would act as an international watchdog on
governments (quite possibly the 'good guys' would not
come out on top in a study like this).  if it were
conducted with integrity, such a study would receive
massive press coverage each time it was issued and
would bring the otherwise relatively abstract issue of
"the public domain" home to a wide audience.  there is
nothing like numbers and rankings to make things

--it would allow people who have uncertainties about
the legal consequences of their public actions or
statements to consult a central, independent source.

i think that the increasingly stern attitudes of
governments all over the world towards the public
behaviour of their citizens would make this relevant
for everyone.

What I am talking about is a mammoth project with much
international cooperation and probably significant
institutional support.  I post it to these lists in
order to see what people think of the idea and how
they think it might be undertaken.  It is not my field
at all, and others will have much more intelligent
things to say about it than i do.

I look forward to hearing your responses.

Rana Dasgupta

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