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When and where should be free information

This weekend I learned about two government follies. One is a lesson from history, the other is a current example. Both are about restricting access to information, limiting freedom and economic activity.

  • In 1797 the English parliament decided to impose a tax on personal timepieces. As a result, people stopped carrying watches and the national watch making industry withered.
  • In Russia today, civilians are not allowed to use GPS. The government is afraid that decentralised mapping threatens national security. This makes it difficult for organisations to record locations of their assets and use of car navigation systems is almost unheard of.

Access to accurate time and location information is an enabler of commerce. In most of the world today, governments subsidise (or at the very least, refrain from taxing) accurate timekeeping and location services (with reference to the "positive externalities" argument).

Today's most important enabler of commerce is the internet. I hope the lessons from the late 1700's are not forgotten in the continuing pressure to sort out the regulations governing the internet.

The 1797 act was repealed after nine months.

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Comments

Michael Wagner

Have you ever read James Gleick's book "Faster"? You might enjoy his discussion of time and speed at the opening of the book. Very thought provoking.

Love the bit about taxing time pieces - I was history and classical Greek major. I love it when someone in the business world makes use of historical reference. Grin.

Thanks for enlarging the conversation!

Lars

Faster is one of my favourite books. I love the first chapter when Gleick visits the US directorate of time and later the description of how classical music that is played faster is favoured by radio stations.

I learned about the tax when I visited Leeds Castle in Kent. They had a big timepiece with a description that this kind of clock was popular with pubs in the wake of the timepiece tax. Travellers could peek in to see what time it was and probably feel obliged to have a drink as well.

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