White House Endorses Open Access Research

February 24, 2013

For a few years no, there has been a growing movement in the research and academic world to provide free or low-cost access to research results.  Traditionally, these results have been under the control of the publishers of academic journals, which charge high annual subscription fees; when access to an individual article is available, it commonly costs $30-40 or more.  I’ve written here several times about the growing trend among organizations, including The Royal Society, Princeton University, the World Bank, and the National Academies Press, to make some or all of their content available at no charge on the Web.   Last summer, the Research Councils UK announced a new open-access policy that applies to all research that they fund, wholly or in part, effective April 2013; this was in part the result of a British government policy decision that all publicly-funded research should be made available online, free of charge.

The US government, of course, provides funding for a great deal of research, too, and there have been increasing calls to make the results of that research freely available, including a petition, on the “We the People” section of the White House web site, which attracted 65,704 signatures.  On Friday, the administration released a response from Dr. John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which announced a move toward open access:

The Obama Administration agrees that citizens deserve easy access to the results of research their tax dollars have paid for.

Details of the new policy are contained in a memorandum [PDF] to Federal agencies, directing those with R&D budgets of more than $100 million to develop plans under which all research will be made available to the public, free of charge, within 12 months of original publication.  This approach is modeled on the existing Public Access Policy of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Individual agencies need not copy the NIH policy exactly; they are allowed, in principle, to make adjustments to fit their particular fields of research.  And there will be the customary exemptions for national security and other sensitive areas.

We should probably expect a certain amount of squabbling over the details of these policies; after all, the journal publishers have a vested economic interest in the status quo.   There have already been some complaints that the announcement does not go far enough toward completely open access, and doubtless there will be more.  As with any new policy, the odds are that the initial implementation will fall short of perfection.  Yet I think that, on the whole, this is a very positive step.  Once open access to even a part of the research results is granted, it will be very difficult to go back.

Keeping the Internet Open

December 2, 2012

As many readers know, the Internet as it exists today had its beginnings in a project sponsored by the US Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, called ARPANET, the first packet-switched computer network, which got its start back in 1969.  Although there is a certain amount of specious lore about the project (e.g., the network was designed to withstand a nuclear war), reliability and robustness have always been important design goals.  Open and flexible standards have also been sought; in the 1970s and 1980s, when the technology was being developed, there were many different, competing vendor standards for computer networking.  (I wrote a bit about this in a post last year on the history of Ethernet.)  Getting IBM, DEC, Data General, Pr1me, and other vendors’ machines to talk to each other was a significant step forward.

Naturally enough, given its history, the governance of the Internet has always been a US-centric affair.  That has been fortunate, I think.  The US government has largely resisted attempts to politicize Internet rules, and this is one case where the principle of free speech, protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, has been largely honored.  The openness and freedom  of the Internet have played a big part in making it the incredibly valuable and empowering resource it is today.

From time to time, governments and other entities have floated proposals to “internationalize” the Internet by giving overall control of its governance to some international body, perhaps part of the United Nations.  A new proposal of this kind will be introduced at the World Conference on International Telecommunications, convened by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU, a UN agency), and being held in Dubai from 3-14 December 2012.   Although the ITU has historically been rather secretive about its deliberations, which are behind closed doors, pre-conference leaks indicate that several member states intend to introduce proposals that would impose more controls on Internet content.

Vint Cerf, Google VP and Chief Internet Evangelist, one of the Internet’s technical pioneers, and a recipient of the Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery, has written a post on the Official Google Blog on the value of an open Internet.

Our protocols were designed to make the networks of the Internet non-proprietary and interoperable. They avoided “lock-in,” and allowed for contributions from many sources. This openness is why the Internet creates so much value today. Because it is borderless and belongs to everyone, it has brought unprecedented freedoms to billions of people worldwide: the freedom to create and innovate, to organize and influence, to speak and be heard.

The ITU performs many useful technical coordination functions; it helps in managing radio spectrum and telephone networks, for example.  But only governments have a voice at the ITU, and some of those governments are, to put it mildly, not entirely dedicated to openness and freedom.   In another article, at the CNN site, Cerf elaborates on some of the issues involved.

Several authoritarian regimes reportedly propose to ban anonymity from the web, making it easier to find and arrest dissidents. Others have proposed moving the responsibilities of the private sector system that manages domain names and internet addresses to the United Nations.

To expect the ITU’s process to consistently support the principles and ideals of openness and freedom requires (to borrow a phrase from J.R.R. Tolkien) not that disbelief be suspended, but hanged, drawn, and quartered.

There is a campaign underway to promote the goal of an open Internet; the campaign is being tracked with an online, interactive map.  Google is also sponsoring a petition.  If you support the preservation of a free and open Internet, I invite you to sign the petition.

Court to TSA, Again: Follow the Law

August 4, 2012

Back in 2010, a group led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center [EPIC] filed a lawsuit challenging the use of full-body scanners by the US Transportation Security Administration [TSA], on the grounds of privacy, possible health risks, and questionable effectiveness.  On July 15, 2011, the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the TSA had to follow the normal procedure for issuing new regulations, as specified in the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946.  Basically, this involves the TSA’s publication of the proposed regulations in the Federal Register, solicitation of public comments over a reasonable time period, and then justification for the regulation in light of the submitted comments.

A year later, as reported in an article at Ars Technica, the TSA had apparently ignored both the requirements of the statute and the Court’s order, so EPIC has returned to court with a mandamus petition to enforce the original order.  This past Wednesday, the Court issued an order [PDF] that the Department of Homeland Security (of which the TSA is a part) respond to the petition on or before August 30.

I can’t think of any sensible reason that the TSA should be excused from following the normal rule-making procedure.  It’s perfectly obvious what the intended purpose of the scanners is, so there is nothing there to give away; and it’s hard to see how allowing public comment could be harmful — it might even help.

Requiring the TSA to follow the formal rule-making procedure is important, because one of the essential steps in that process is the solicitation of public feedback. American travelers will have the opportunity to voice their concerns about the TSA’s policy, and the agency will be required to respond to those concerns. Given that so many of the TSA’s policies are shrouded in secrecy, forcing the TSA to explain its policies will be a much-needed source of transparency.

There is also a petition at the Whitehouse.gov site that requests that President Obama order the TSA to comply with the law and with the court order.  (Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, discusses the petition in an OpEd article at Ars Technica.)   The petition currently has more than 19,000 signatures; if it gets 25,000 by August 9, the administration’s policy requires it to provide a formal response.  You have to register at the site in order to sign, but that requires only an E-mail address.

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