Netcoalition.com, a lobbying group led by Yahoo! and Google, is protesting at proposed price increases by the New York Stock Exchange (Times) for its real-time data. Over at the Guardian Roy Greenslade argues that "data must be free" and concludes "I'm with Google on this".
Just this once, I am not. This is one of the rare exceptions to the rule that the web has made information free and universally accessible. To quote Stewart Brand (unusually, in full), "on the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other."
There are two points I'd like to make here. One is that the NYSE is not a public service: it is a business that provides a valuable service, a marketplace for the transacting of shares. By creating this marketplace it creates value for all of its users, and for providing this facility it takes various cuts, including a fee for access to real-time prices. Much as eBay takes a fee for hosting and making available its marketplace for transacting merchandise, the NYSE wants to be paid for putting buyers in touch with sellers. I'm inclined to say fair enough.
The second point is this. Real-time share prices (rather than prices delayed by a mere fifteen minutes, the distinction that is being debated here) are useful for one thing - trading that share. If you want to buy or sell a share, you need to know the price you'll buy or sell it at. But you can't buy or sell shares directly through Yahoo! Finance or at Google - for that you need a stockbroker, and once you've signed up with a broker they'll provide you with real-time prices as part of the package. No problem. (And in fact even real-time prices aren't enough to trade on - for that you need things like the spread and the order book, but no-one seems to be arguing about that.) Real-time share prices are the sort of information that wants to be expensive because in the right place it changes your life (or at least your fortunes). That's what - indeed that's all - it's for.
If you just want to know roughly how a share is performing...well, prices delayed by fifteen minutes are perfectly adequate in all but the rarest circumstances of unexpected calamity or unexpected triumph. Now, at this point eagle-eyed readers might point out that those are precisely the circumstances in which investors need to know exactly what's going on in real-time - but in fact no, anyone actually holding shares (and who has the vaguest idea of what they're doing) will use something called a stop/loss order, an instruction to their broker to automatically buy or sell if a certain price is reached.
So what consumer right is Google and Yahoo!'s coalition campaigning for? The one need consumers could really have for that data - buying and selling shares listed on the NYSE - is already met for them by the stockbrokers they have to use to make those trades. The web giants are, I think, really arguing about two things and neither of them are a matter of consumer protection. One is, perhaps, a sincere matter of principle - there are many people at Yahoo!, Google and elsewhere who passionately believe that information wants to be free, even if the information in question is expensive for someone else to collect and disseminate, perhaps even if that information really isn't of any practical use. It just "wants to be free" as a matter of principle. But the other is a matter of simple economics. The NYSE controls that data and when it raises the license fee for it takes money from Yahoo! and Google and keeps it for the New York Stock Exchange. That, I suspect, is the principle most painfully at stake for the members of Netcoalition here.