Thursday, July 29, 2010

Information Wants to be Expensive

It would appear that the United Kingdom has discovered, rather painfully, just how delusional the information-wants-to-be-free precept is. BBC Political Correspondent Ross Hawkins just filed the following report on the BBC News Web site:

Four government departments spent almost £6m ensuring their websites appeared on search engine results pages in the last two financial years, according to newly released figures.

The Department of Health was the biggest spender, running up a bill of £4.4m in "paid search" fees.

It said the money was spent supporting campaigns on smoking and the flu pandemic.

Organisations can pay search engines to ensure their websites appear at the top of users' searches. They are often charged for each person who accesses their sites via the link.

The Department for Communities and Local Government spent over £750,000 promoting campaign websites including those for Home Information Packs, Eco Towns and Energy Performance Certificates.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change spent more than £309,000 last year. The Department of the environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) spent almost £500,000.

It other words the British government is trying to use the World Wide Web to circulate useful information to the public; but, if they want the public to find that information through the search engines they tend to use (which probably means Google), then they have to pay to get those pages assigned a sufficiently high page rank. Put yet another way, it looks as if Google is making a tidy profit over the efforts of the British government to keep the British public well informed. Is this what they mean by making money without doing evil?

As a rule I do not think of myself as conservative. In this case however I have to credit a Tory Member of Parliament with recognizing how naked the emperor is and trying to get others to see the same:

Conservative MP Damian Hinds, who uncovered the figures in a series of Parliamentary questions, said: "Of course there are times and subjects when getting the information out there is an absolute imperative.

"But in general I don't see why government departments should spend large sums improving their showing on search engines.

"I would have thought the search engines themselves should ensure official information is easy to find."

Furthermore, in the context of what I just wrote about public libraries, I find myself entertaining the hypothesis that beyond the opposition between service-as-business and public service is the illusion provided by Internet technology that disguises the former as the latter.

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