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The 1797 act was repealed after nine months.