In a win for open government advocacy, DC removes flaws in its municipal open data policy

Update:

dcgov_logoIt’s a good day for open government in the District of Columbia. Today, DC’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) has updated the Terms and Conditions for DC.gov and the city’s new open data platform, addressing some of the concerns that the Sunlight Foundation and Code for DC expressed about the new open data policy introduced in July. The updated terms and conditions rolling out onto the city’s digital civic architecture this afternoon. “Today’s changes are really focused on aligning DC.Gov’s Terms and Conditions of Use with the new open data and transparency policy released this summer,” explained Mike Rupert, the communications director for OCTO,” in an interview. “The site’s T&C hadn’t been updated in many years,” according to Rupert. The new T&C will apply to DC.gov, the open data platform and other city websites. “It is encouraging that DC is taking steps toward considering feedback and improving its Terms and Conditions, but there is still room for improvement in the broader scope of DC’s policies,”said Alisha Green, a policy associate with Sunlight Foundation’s local policy team.  “We hope those implementing DC’s new open data policy will actively seek stakeholder input to improve upon what the policy requires. The strength of the policy will be in its implementation, and we hope DC will take every opportunity to make that process as open, collaborative and impactful as possible.” So, OCTO both heard and welcomed the feedback from open government advocates regarding the policy and agreed that the policy implications of the terms and conditions were problematic. Certain elements of the previous Terms and Conditions of Use (Indemnity, Limitation of Liability) could have chilled the understanding of the public’s right to access and have been eliminated,” said Rupert. Those were the sections that prompted civic hacker Josh Tauberer to wonder whether he needed a lawyer to hack in DC are simply gone, specifically that Indemnity and Liability Section. Other sections, however, still remain. The revised policy I obtained before the updated terms and conditions went online differs in a couple of ways from the one that just that went online. First, the Registration section remains, as does the Conduct section, although DC eliminated the 11 specific examples. That said, it’s better, and that’s a win. District officials remain cautious about how and where reuse might occur, they’re going to at least let the data flow without a deeply flawed policy prescription. “While we want to be mindful of and address the potential for harm to or misuse of District government information and data, the Terms and Conditions of Use should promote the new open data and transparency philosophy in a more positive manner,” said Rupert. Sharp-eyed readers of the new policy, however, will note that DC’s open data and online information has now been released to the public under a Creative Commons license, specifically Attribution 3.0 United States. That means that anyone who uses DC’s open data is welcome to “Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and Adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material — for any purpose, even commercially,” as long as they provide “Attribution — You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.” When asked about the CC license choice, Rupert said that “The new copyright language from Creative Commons – which as you is know is becoming the international standard – better states the overriding principle of the public’s right to web content and data. ” That did not sit entirely well with open government advocates who hold that making open data license free is a best practice. Asked for comment, Tauberer emailed the following statement in a response to the draft of the revision, welcoming the District’s responsiveness but questioning the premise of the District of Columbia having any “terms and conditions” for the public using open government data at all.

The new terms drop the most egregious problems, but these terms still don’t count as “open.” Should I expect a lawsuit if I don’t tip my hat and credit the mayor every time I use the data we taxpayers paid to create? Until the attribution requirement is dropped, I will recommend that District residents get District data through Freedom of Information Act requests. It might take longer, but it will be on the people’s terms, not the mayor’s. It’s not that the District shouldn’t get credit, but the District shouldn’t demand it and hold civil and possibly criminal penalties over our heads to get it. For instance, yesterday Data.gov turned their attribution requirement into a suggestion. That’s the right way to encourage innovation. All that said, I appreciate their responsiveness to our feedback. Tim from DC GIS spent time at Code for DC to talk about it a few weeks ago, and I appreciated that. It is a step in the right direction, albeit one deaf to our repeated explanation that “open” does not mean “terms of use.

The good news is that DC’s OCTO is listening and has committed to being responsive to future concerns about how it’s handling DC’s online presences and policies. “Several of your questions allude to the overall open data policy and we will definitely be reaching out to you and all other interested stakeholders as we begin implement various elements of that policy,” said Rupert.

Update: On October 29th, DC updated its Terms and Conditions again, further improving them. Tauberer commented on the changes to the open data policy on his blog. In his view, the update represents a step forward and a step back:

In a new update to the terms posted today, which followed additional conversations with OCTO, there were two more great improvements. These terms were finally dropped:

  • agreeing to follow all “rules”, a very ambiguous term
  • the requirement to attribute the data to the District in all uses of the data (it’s now merely a suggestion)

The removal of these two requirements, in combination with the two removed in September, makes this a very important step forward.

One of my original concerns remains, however, and that is that the District has not granted anyone a copyright license to use District datasets. Data per se isn’t protected by copyright law, but the way a dataset is presented may be. The District has claimed copyright over its things before, and it remains risky to use District datasets without a copyright license. Both the September update and today’s update attempted to address this concern but each created more confusion that there was before.

Although today’s update mentions the CC0 public domain dedication, which would be the correct way to make the District data available, it also explicitly says that the District retains copyright:

  • The terms say, at the top, that they “apply only to . . . non-copyrightable information.” The whole point is that we need a license to use the aspects of the datasets that are copyrighted by the District.
  • Later on, the terms read: “Any copyrighted or trademarked content included on these Sites retains that copyright or trademark protection.” Again, this says that the District retains copyright.
  • And: “You must secure permission for reuse of copyrighted … content,” which, as written (but probably not intended), seems to say that to the extent the District datasets are copyrighted, data users must seek permission to use it first. (Among other problems, like side-stepping “fair use” in copyright law.)

With respect to the copyright question, the new terms document is a step backward because it may confuse data users into thinking the datasets have been dedicated to the public domain when in fact they haven’t been.

This post has been updated with comments from Tauberer and the Sunlight Foundation.

2 thoughts on “In a win for open government advocacy, DC removes flaws in its municipal open data policy

  1. Pingback: DC's restrictions on open data? They're working on it - Technical.ly DC

  2. Pingback: DC updates its open data terms of use: Round 2 Joshua Tauberer’s Blog

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