Is paid internet the price of business?

How much information do you need to do your job properly? You network at events like a trooper. You've got access to company reports, analyst reports and tech newsgroups. You've got specialist IT and business publications -- hell, you've got the internet. Ah yes, but that's the free internet.

How much information do you need to do your job properly?

You network at events like a trooper. You've got access to company reports, analyst reports and tech newsgroups. You've got specialist IT and business publications arriving in bundles like you're the paper boy -- hell, you've got the internet.

Ah yes, but that's the free internet.

There's a whole cordoned-off slice of the web you can only get to by paying a subscription to one of several information services. And we're not just talking about AOL charging for People magazine or the much-cited Wall St Journal here -- but the aggregation of market and company data, subscriber news services, legal and public information, intellectual property resources.

How much of this kind of paid content is available free on the web? Less than half, say the info services providers. (But are they telling the truth and is it the right half, you may well ask.) They say they also save you time because they are so clever at searching and delivering information. Factiva, one of the main three (along with LexisNexis and Dialog, all backed by media giants), commissioned a survey to estimate the amount of time such services saved "knowledge workers" averaging $US30 an hour. One hour a week was saved by 15% while 20% saved two to five hours. An unbelievable 65% said they saved more than five hours a week, potentially returning more than $US5 million in costs to the companies studied. You can have it delivered to your corporate portal (they've already done the deals) or direct to your desktop environment (Microsoft Office 2003).

Can you afford not to subscribe?

Well, don't imagine they're cheap, customers having a choice of schemes, typically including bulk subscriptions or per-article flat fees (from a couple of dollars US).

It's more likely your fellow executive-board business strategists need regular competitive business information, but you may already subscribe to such a service as a high-priced press cutting service, of value if you're trying to find out if an expensive suite has been plagued with problems. Or if the organisation in which you work needs very particular data, like credit records or insurance data or law enforcement files.

I was reminded of these services when a friend on the other side of the world emailed to compliment me on the accuracy of my Oscar tips, the result of another life as a film critic (a pathetic 4/7 of the top categories). If nothing else, this reminds us journalists that anything we write has not just local and national but global implications. The long arm of the law can tap our shoulders on copyright, plagiarism and defamation faux pas (surely everyone of sound mind now knows that US publisher Dow Jones is being sued by Australian mining magnate Joseph Gutnick over the internet version of an unflattering mention in Barron's magazine). Not to mention corporates keeping an eye on how we besmirch their poor, undeserving reputations.

But won't Google save us from paying for stuff that's mostly free in its original form anyway? Sort of.

The search giant is already fighting the trend, to some degree. It crawls the free internet, gathering news, images and newsgroups and keeps caches of the archived (read: paid) news for a while. It recently bought a weblog firm, so can provide quick access to many of the blogs out there, where too much of the real analysis is taking place in troubled times like these. While it remains to be seen whether Google licenses more content that’s not readily available, it will continue to improve access to less structured data and to the so-called deep web, data in not readily accessible formats or in the thousands of public and private databases not yet linked to the internet.

In late 2001 Chris Sherman from watchdog Search Engine Watch said the deep web is "of huge value as a business. Look at the market that traditional proprietary database or information service providers like Dow Jones [which backs Factiva] or LexisNexis have." (Around $US2 billion in sales for 2000.)

"There are a huge number of really authoritative resources out there that are either free or very low-cost. I think that they pose a real threat to some of these more established concerns."

Frankly, I hope the free internet keeps growing, particularly in government and business data. Legislation is going online, but other public data is less "free". For instance, the Companies Office here charges for information, the basic equivalent of which in Australia is free. Why information from the courts is not online I do not understand. The idea's been mooted for years.

Smaller local organisations and exporters doubtless find the burden of staying competitive "informationally" a heavy one. The more useful information freely available to wannabe-big companies (let alone the general public), the more likely they are to make smart investments, take the right decisions and hire the right people.

Broatch is Computerworld's deputy editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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