Banned in Parliament: the technology that offends democracy

Parliament has taken advice over what technology it should and shouldn’t use if it wants to prevent private software companies from determining who can and can’t access Hansard, the official record of Parliamentary proceedings. 
The Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology (PICT) office used the advice, from two of the UK’s most prominent standards experts, to develop a policy that reflected how computer standards have become a matter of significance to democracy.
Central to the advice is a concern over multimedia standards, which has informed PICT’s decision to overhaul Hansard’s electronic publications, introducing open standards and ditching technology that puts restraints on what computer users can access public Parliamentary records.
Providing a list of forbidden technologies, the advice came from a May 2009 report (called Principles of Data and System Design for the Acquisition, Management and Delivery of Parliamentary Information) written by Francis Cave, chair of the controversial International Standards Organisation committee that oversees the OOXML and OpenDocument file formats, and Alex Brown who sits on the British Standards Institute Technical committee that does the same.
“The following technologies must not be used as they either hinder operability, impose a burden on the user, damage the chances of long term stability, or are obsolete,” said Cave and Brown in the report.
“W3C ‘Web Services’ technologies (SOAP etc)”, SGML, RTF, ActiveX, COM, OLE, “CORBA (etc)” and Java applets, were all forbidden.
The report also said Adobe’s ubiquitous Flash and Microsoft’s Silverlight multimedia standards “must not be used” unless there were simply no alternative open standards that might replace them. Parliament makes use of both technologies and though PICT has opted to replace them, it has not determined whether the technical limitations of HTML5, the comparatively immature open standard that competes with them, is yet up to scratch.
The four commandments
Cave and Brown’s advice made it into a feasibility plan for Parliament to modernise Hansard on the Web. It was subsumed into a set of design principles (“constraints”) imposed on future developments of Hansard’s Web system.
These constraints, obtained by Computer Weekly under FOI, included the following four key points:
  • Non-open standard formats should not be used to deliver content
  • Proprietary components or 3rd party plug-ins should not be used
  • The project should meet the requirements for digital preservation.
  • The solution should reach the widest possible audience
The policy reflected a wider concern that the historic record would be threatened by the way software vendors imposed restrictions on data stored using their proprietary formats. PICT has joined forces with Parliament’s Digital Preservation team to find an open standard in which Parliamentary records can be stored.
PICT admitted with the publication of the same constraints that recordings of Parliament’s proceedings had been stored (using non-open Microsoft formats) without any thought for the consequences for digital preservation. PICT rejected Microsoft’s Silverlight but recommended waiting to see if the HTML5 open standard improved before making a decision.
Not so flash
Flash appeared to have proved the point for PICT. In a feasibility study for Hansard’s modernisation, the department noted that even though Flash was used by more than 95 per cent of computer users, Apple had prevented Flash from being used on its iPhone and iPad. Apple develops QuickTime, a competing technology, but allowed HTML5 to be used on its platform.
PICT’s analysis reflected the fact so many software vendors had been competing to dominate the multimedia industry with their own proprietary standards that HTML5 had been left by the wayside. 
But Flash’s popularity would pass. It was, said PICT, “predominantly down to the popularity of YouTube”. The video website had opted to use Flash at a time when the multimedia market had been “fragmented” by Windows Media, QuickTime and RealPlayer, each of whom had their own proprietary format, multimedia codec and delivery platform.
“YouTube’s success was down to its ability to provide free, easy-to-use tools to upload, play and share video in a joined-up manner and in the absence of any open standards for video on the web,” said PICT’s report.
But with the backing of Apple, Google and YouTube, HTML5 was, implied PICT, looking more like a viable open standard.