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Can collective database licensing cure this tragedy of the commons?

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Letter "How do I get rid of a blog screen?" asks reader Richard today. "Everytime I enter Google a blog page appears and I want to get rid of this." He may have had the same problem with the new Microsoft beta search engine, in which El Reg has but a spectral presence - with many hundreds of links to entries talking about Register stories but very few of the stories themselves actually included. It's a spooky feeling. For a certain kind of control freak personality, this may be nirvana: the perfect internet. The original source material is cloaked by people talking about it - people just like themselves. But for shoppers and music lovers, catalogs and fake web sites that look like catalogs, represent an even greater problem. Search engines are in a crisis, and it's not entirely their fault.

There are many deeper problems with the internet as an information mine than blogs or faux catalogs. Let's look at the bigger picture.

Ten years ago the internet - one computer network amongst many - was brought to our attention with the promise that it would give us unlimited access to "all the world's information." The phrase still pops up when people refer to the internet in the public prints. We're awash with information, but more hasn't proved to be better. What we have is a typical tragedy of the commons, a space that more closely resembles a toxic wasteland. The promise hasn't been fulfilled. Canonical databases and archives cost money; copyright is a fact of life, and clever licensing workarounds don't address the underlying economic issues. Information costs money and most rights holders like to be paid.

Lazy governments have cynically taken advantage of this. Technologists only see more technology as the answer, and they've sold the idea to politicians. In the United Kingdom, the administration has presided over the slow strangulation of the public library service, and now simply points parents and schools to the internet. Buy a PC and broadband, and you'll have everything you want: and if the garbage flies at you at 500 times the speed it did on dial-up, then you're experiencing the thrill of truly living in the "information age"!

Can we do better? One reader thinks so. If we realize the power of our social structures, we can negotiate a deal with music rights holders that makes everyone richer. So let's try to this with the database holders, agrees Scott Middleton, and try to create the best of both worlds.

Primarily anything along those lines would be used mainly in education systems though. Where we don't want our impressionable youth being exposed to half of the content that any search engine will display. I do remember comedic experiences using Lycos Search when I was younger in college. Most things you searched for would bring up 95% questionable material (as in adult) and you would have to wade through it to get to the 5%.

I don't think its elitist to consider filtering the content for educational purposes. Creating a hub of servers directed primarily, or even solely at the world education system would be a fantastic idea. Its not even logistically impossible. Every country now has a drive to get its populace onto the Internet in one form or another. There is nothing stopping them refining their policies one way or another or even departmentalizing it for this system and the education system.

From experience of UK School Systems policies of filtering the web out them selves there is some serious hard work in progress, and it's all about trying to limit the potential exposure of children to offending and/or damaging material. Kids are in school to learn. The internet is an amazing tool to help the learning process, but when you do simple searches on topics of History or Geography, the amount of sites that hold no information, sales information, adult information still rates in at about 4 sites for every single site listed that has some partially useful information.

To highlight my point, I just did a search on Guadal Canal - the site of a rather significant battle in World War 2. The one page that came up first was from the World War 2 organizational website, that failed to even load. My next recommended links were game cheat websites (dubious indeed especially with a .Ru extension), followed by three property or Hotel sites, three more games sites, two sites offering to sell me memorabilia but actually containing no useful information, and finally finished off with a method of cooking Guadal Canal cactus. I actually used both MSN and Google. Both turned up basically identical results, just in a slightly different order.

Do we want IT staff in schools spending more time managing and creating elaborate firewalls and filtering content software to prevent kids accessing non relevant information? (of course I mean adult material, games pages, hacks, cheats, warez, etc) or do we want school budgets better spent on updated equipment and better facilities?

If I got those results from a simple reference to a World War 2 battle I would dread to think what would turn up on a search for Amsterdam. Companies have such tight guidelines and restrictions on what is acceptable in the work place people face the sack for dubious browsing, where cries of innocence no longer are entertained, and an automatic level of responsibility and burden is placed on a person to know exactly what is acceptable on the internet and what isn't.

If asked, I firmly believe, most parents who received communication from their local school would willingly pay a small fee to limit the content their children are exposed to at school. Just as parents are asked to buy school books and other implements of learning a small yearly fee to allow them access to a whole host of specific, tailored information to relevant subjects would be appreciated and welcomed. I would have loved to have done a search on such a system and bring up many different views of Guadal Canal, their side, our side, the locals side and just views from devils advocates.

I don't think it should be the responsibility of sites to pay the license fee though. They can apply for "membership" into the database of information. There is a given that many additions to the database would be a given, Government sites, registered charity sites and the such, but the ability for Joe public to put forward a website of information dedicated to a topic of knowledge allows it to be separated from the rest of the chaff out there.

To have a Lexis Nexis of information, tailored to subjects and areas of learning for our generation would be not only a brilliant thing, but also something that will improve the education of children. If you add to that an ability to have a global forum for children to discuss and ask questions about topics or websites that are on this Lexus not only are you then giving them the tools for education, but encouraging the sharing of information and developing their desire to not only learn, but to interact with people all over the world, letting them develop inter personal skills and allowing them to mature into respectful adults.

As to every administrations desire to "get back to family values" no matter where that administration is in the world, the best place I think to start, is with the current generation in the school systems. If we can have a tool as suggested for our kids, I think it will make them better more well rounded individuals, and as they go through life I think it will show in better family values and habits of them and their kids.

Scott Middleton

Public libraries, such as your reporter's own in San Francisco, already reach such agreements with rights holders. What this proposal entails is extending the idea.

Scott frames it as an interesting choice: we can pay for an army of sysadmins to keep the bad stuff away from kids, or negotiate a license with database holders to bring in the good stuff. Either way, we pay. So which gives us more more benefits? As ever, your comments are very welcome

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