We wouldn't require Liberal party membership for access to PARL.gc.ca features, would we?

A blog article by Kady O'Malley about a new feature on the parliamentary website suggests that rather than moving towards Internet standards that the parliamentary IT folks are moving to being more software vendor dependant.

In this case it was a new "View this Video" feature only being available under Microsoft's Internet Explorer. There is an ugly hack called IETab which allows Internet Explorer to run within Firefox or Chrome, but that still requires the use of a specific brand of browser that only runs on a single historically popular operating system.

The popularity of an operating system or device at any moment in time should not be considered relevant to new features on the parliamentary website. At one time the Liberals held a majority, and by the logic of suggesting that having a majority once means that things should be mandated forever we should be mandating that only Liberal party members be able to access new features on the parliamentary website.

Political parties and software vendors are comparable. Software is a series of rules which computers follow, and laws and other public policies are rules which citizens follow. Political parties and software vendors are two groups that author policy based on their own goals and principles, and not everyone should be expected to be a member of the same political party or use the same brands of software (For more on this theme, see Lawrence Lessig's Code: And other laws of cyberspace).

The parliamentary website is the responsibility of the Speaker of the House of Commons. In December of last year I wrote to him about an existing problem with the ParlVU service in the hopes that future development of this critical service to Canadian democracy would happen in a platform neutral way. I am including copies of this letter, his response, and my most recent letter. My hope is that other Canadians will become engaged in this so that our institutions will stop promoting specific brands, or the specific political philosophies embedded within the software authored by these brands.

Sent December 8, 2011

The Hon. Andrew Scheer, M.P.
Speaker of the House of Commons,

Copy to my MP for Ottawa South.

I believe parliamentary information technology, including the website, is under the jurisdiction of the speaker. If I am incorrect, please advise who I should be directing this to.

I am writing to request that Webcasts available from parlvu.parl.gc.ca be made available in a vendor-neutral manner. Currently I am only able to access with my desktop computers. My desktops run Ubuntu Linux, and to use the site I utilize a tool which must violate multimedia patents which Microsoft and other allegedly hold in order to access the webcasts. My other devices including my tablet and mobile phone (both run Android), my Google Chromebook, and my Boxee Box (set-top box) are not able to access these Webcasts. The best I can do is watch the single stream from CPAC.ca, which doesn't give me access to committees or to audio-only streams (which would be great when mobile).

This may seem like a purely technical decision that should be left to technical people, but as a technical person I disagree. I recommend a book by Lawrence Lessig called "CODE: and other laws of cyberspace" http://www.code-is-law.org/ which explains the relationship between software code (rules which computers follow) and legal code (rules which humans follow). Software choice includes critical public policy questions which must not be treated as only a technology or procurement question.

Note: I have presented on the "code is law" topic as part of interventions in front of parliamentary committees. My most recent intervention in the last parliament was in relation to the Paracopyright provisions in Bill C-32 (Now C-11). http://c11.ca/own

I work in Ottawa, down the street in the Library and Archives building, and can be made available to you or you staff to discuss this in person. While my letter today is about ParlVU, I also believe MPs should have access to a wider variety of technologies in order to become more aware of the public policy issues within this marketplace. Parliament needs to become more agile. Historically parliamentary services have been the slowest to expose MPs to the very technologies which are regulated by laws passed by parliament.

Russell McOrmond
[other contact information removed]
http://www.flora.ca/#contact

Note: At least ParlVU works on my desktops. The Supreme Court of Canada webcasts block me from all the devices I use and/or own. I must attend in person, or borrow equipment to access their proceedings. They only support the historically popular legacy platforms which Microsoft supports. As computing moves mobile, Microsoft plays a much smaller part http://www.engadget.com/2011/12/05/comscore-android-continues-to-boom-rim-and-microsoft-decline/

Reply received on January 30, 2012

Dear Mr. McOrmond:

Thank you for your email of December 8, 2011, in which you request that ParlVU webcasts be made available in a vendor-neutral manner. The story of how we make the proceedings of Parliament available for Canadians and the world to see and hear continues to unfold.

In 1977, the House of Commons became the first legislative body to televise its gavel-to-gavel proceedings. Today, viewers across Canada are able to watch the proceedings of the House and selected committees on CPAC (Cable Public Affairs Channel). Audio and video feeds are also distributed to other media organizations accredited through the Parliamentary Press Gallery for broadcast and re-use.

In 2002, the House of Commons launched a service called ParlVU on Canada's parliamentary website (www.parl.gc.ca). ParlVU carries live and on-demand video and audio from all public House of Commons committee meetings. For all proceedings, ParlVU offers English, French and floor (non-interpreted) audio. When ParlVU was launched, it, like many similar services, was offered in what remains a widely used and adopted format.

As you suggest, recent and emerging technologies offer more opportunities to share and re-use information. In 2009, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs revised the Speaker's permission governing parliamentary proceedings and the re-use of audio, video and text. Text from the Chamber and the proceedings of House of Commons committees are now available for re-use and in open formats (i.e., XML), and have the potential to support the transparency and visibility of parliamentarians' work.

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With regard to ParlVU specifically, the service will continue to evolve over the short to medium term, the goal being to provide access to audio and video content in a vendor-neutral format that can also be accessed using mobile technologies, such as tablets and smartphones.

I thank you for your shared interest in ParlVU and the work of the Parliament of Canada. Should you have any further questions, please contact Elaine Diguer, Director, Multimedia services, [other contact information removed]

Sincerely,

Andrew Scheer, M.P.

Latest letter sent Oct 16, 2012

The Hon. Andrew Scheer, M.P.
Speaker of the House of Commons,

Copy to my MP for Ottawa South.
Copy to Kady O'Malley,

After reading
http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/inside-politics-blog/2012/10/parliamentary-website-video-upgrade-leaves-non-ie-users-behind.html I checked out the site. Seems ParlVu hasn't received an upgrade, and the new features only work with 1990's era Microsoft Windows desktops.

I will re-ask the question I had last year, and hope that the changes to the parliamentary website that Kady mentioned in her article are seen only as early-beta and not final releases.

Software, the rules that computers obey, are like law, the rules that citizens obey. Saying that only those who have chosen one brand of software can access features on the parliamentary site is comparable to saying only those who are members of a specific political party can access features on the parliamentary site. Telling someone who has never used Microsoft software that it is their choice to not see the feature is like telling someone who has never voted for a specific political party that it is simply their choice to not see the feature.

Please ensure more thought to the wider public policy and political implications are considered in how this site, which is critical to Canadian democracy, is designed. This is not a simple procurement question any more than who should author "Marleau-Montpetit" is a simple procurement question. These are not decisions that can be left to the IT folks.

Thank you.

Russell McOrmond
[other contact information removed]

[copy of Dec 8, 2011 letter removed]



Update:

CPAC.ca recently upgraded their site to Drupal CMS (Some work done by OpenConcept.ca) and a different JavaScript front-end for the on-demand video. I checked things out and both the live-stream and the on-demand videos work on my desktops, my ASUS Transformer (Android tablet), my Samsung Smart TV (set-top style device built into TV), and my Boxee Box (Set-top style box) . The only device I own that it didn't work on is my old Google Nexus 1 smartphone, and I fully expect the issues there to be fixed in the future.

Contrast this with ParlVU which only worked on my Ubuntu desktop using an ugly hack of a plug-in to view the video. I don't think desktops are the right target for long-form video or audio, and believe that ParlVU is facing backwards.



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