Whitehall internal politics defeats plan to modernise parliamentary video streaming

Plans to promote public participation in Westminster politics by propagating video recordings of parliamentary proceedings through the web have stalled over...

Plans to promote public participation in Westminster politics by propagating video recordings of parliamentary proceedings through the web have stalled over technical and internal political differences between different offices in Whitehall.

The Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology (PICT) office and Parliamentary Broadcast Unit (PBU) have begun a technology review after a clash of priorities that centred over the choice of which multimedia and web standards Parliament should use to broadcast debates over the internet.

Their differences became apparent last year when PICT attempted to flush its computer systems through with open standards so that any citizen could access parliamentary data using any computer platform. The aim was to distribute parliamentary data as widely as possible among the population.

E-mails obtained by Computer Weekly under Freedom of Information legislation show that PICT had attempted to banish Microsoft's standards because their inherent exclusivity meant they could not be used by all computer users.

But the plan was scuppered by restrictions set in licences agreed between Parliament and broadcasters and cemented through the use of Microsoft standards. PBU's commitment to its licence restrictions had prevented any progress being made.

Timothy Jeffes, director of broadcasting for the Houses of Parliament, told Computer Weekly that the broadcast licence, which established terms for the use of video recordings of parliamentary proceedings, was an agreement between Parliament and Parliamentary Broadcasting Limited, a company owned jointly by the BBC, ITV, Channel4 and Sky.

Jeffes said the review PBU was undergoing with PICT would consider changing the broadcast licence terms as well as the multimedia formats and internet standards it used to publish its recordings on the web.

PICT's emails said the PBU preferred Microsoft formats because they correlated with its broadcast licence terms, which forbade the distribution of parliamentary recordings by any means other than streamed video.

These terms obstructed PICT's plan to allow any citizen to embed cuts of parliamentary broadcasts in their web pages, and download broadcasts for offline examination, for the sake of democratic participation in political debate. Jeffes said the licence has since been changed to allow embedded video.

An email report of a "Workshop for Architecture and Standards" in January told Jeffes and PICT director of technology Innes Montgomery how the licence restrictions had wedded Parliament to Microsoft.

"The Broadcasting Unit has specific licensing requirements around the material it publishes and needs to prevent downloading and re-use of material," said the email on 25 January.

"This has led to them adopting WMV streaming media as the standard alternative to their use of Silverlight for presenting video content," it said.

The PBU, PICT and Parliament's Web Centre all agreed in principle at the workshop that parliamentary data should only be published using open standards.

But by July 2010, PICT realised that PBU was not ready to give up Microsoft standards after all.

In an email report on 7 July 2010, a civil servant (whose name was redacted) told Montgomery: "The outcome was inconclusive. There was little stomach to take on Broadcasting and ask them to switch to using something other than Windows Media & Silverlight to capture and stream their audiovisual content."

"The crunch point will have to come some day but the Broadcasting Improvements project probably isn't the right vehicle," said the email.

The Broadcasting Improvements Project had sought to enhance the web publication of Parliament's official Hansard transcripts by linking text references to indexed points in video and audio recordings of the same debates.

PICT backed a plan to use open multimedia standards so that if someone clicked on a video link in a Hansard text they were not required to use Microsoft or another proprietary format to watch the recording.

The plan has got nowhere, but the review has nevertheless put a freeze on further use of Microsoft's latest Silverlight multimedia technology in Parliament's software development, said Jeffes. It will also consider if it is possible to dump Microsoft's Multimedia Windows Media Format and Adobe's Flash or whether there are no suitable alternatives.

Jeffes said that open multimedia standards might have technological limitations that ruled them out.

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