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View Joe Preston Profile
CPC (ON)
Good morning, all. This is meeting number 57 of the procedure and House affairs committee.
We're here on Motion M-428 by Mr. Stewart on electronic petitions.
We have some great guests with us this morning.
We have taken a little bit of time off this committee meeting today. If you're all right with the chair saying so, we're going to try to go 45 minutes and 45 minutes with our two groups of witnesses. Try to keep your questions short and try to get in as much as you can.
Monsieur Gagnon, you're here today to help us with this. You have an opening statement. Please, if you would, let's get started.
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André Gagnon
View André Gagnon Profile
André Gagnon
2014-11-18 11:28
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Thank you, Mr. Chair. I will keep my remarks relatively brief.
I am pleased to be here as part of your study on electronic petitions, emanating from Mr. Stewart's motion, M-428, which instructs the committee to "recommend changes to the Standing Orders and other conventions governing petitions so as to establish an electronic petitioning system".
Thank you for the invitation. I am joined today by Soufiane Ben Moussa, Chief Technology Officer of Information Services at the House of Commons.
I will begin with a very brief overview of the evolution of the issue of e-petitions at the House of Commons, and then outline the themes and questions the committee may wish to consider with respect to this proposal. And, of course, I would then be happy to take questions.
Electronic petitioning was first discussed during meetings of the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of Commons in 2003, as part of its general mandate. In its fourth report, it recommended "the development of a system for electronic petitions in consultation with the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs". After the special committee ceased its work with the prorogation of November 2003, your committee continued this work on e-petitions.
On February 3, 2005, along with then-clerk, Mr. Bill Corbett, and then-deputy clerk, Ms. Audrey O'Brien, I appeared before this committee to discuss electronic notices and petitions.
At that time members of the committee raised important questions, many of which remain relevant in the current context, including how to validate an online signature, how to prevent frivolous or libellous petitions, and the role of members in the e-petition process. As a result, the committee concluded that the proposal required further consideration.
In addition, the key themes outlined by Audrey O'Brien in 2005, the uniformity of rules and practices with paper petitions, the authenticity of signatures, the level of interactivity, the culture of petitions, and the cost and infrastructure of an e-petition system, are still very relevant.
Today we will focus on the proposal at hand; that is, an e-petition system with a possibility of a take-note debate when a petition gathers more than 100,000 signatures and is sponsored by at least 10 members of Parliament.
We will try to address very briefly various related issues that could be of interest to the committee. The first one relates to changes to the rules.
As it stands, the proposal would require moderate changes to the Standing Orders. For the purpose of simplicity, the e-petition system should mirror, to the extent possible, the current procedures and practices in place for paper petitions.
For example, members should retain the role they have with respect to paper petitions for e-petitions. They could present such e-petitions in the House or with the Clerk on behalf of their constituents without being involved in initiating or in endorsing them. That being said, they could do it, as well.
The committee should consider what would be required for an individual to initiate an e-petition. For instance, what information should be collected from or about this individual and what level of responsibility will they assume for the content of the petition? The committee may also wish to consider whether multiple petitions on a similar topic can be published on an e-petitions website at the same time, and if not, what constitutes a substantial difference between two proposed e-petitions.
The idea of holding a debate, for instance a four-hour take-note debate—it could be less than four hours—was also raised. If the committee were to decide to include such a proposal, it would definitely require changes to the Standing Orders. As our Standing Orders are currently drafted, only ministers of the crown may propose motions of this kind. The committee should also give consideration to a mechanism to schedule these debates.
The timeliness for an e-petition is also important to consider. The proposal refers to a 90-day period for public petitioning on the Web site. This is certainly in keeping with the general approach followed elsewhere. Obviously, this period can be shorter or longer.
As well, the committee may reflect on what, if any, effect a prorogation or a dissolution might have. One could argue that the process should continue when Parliament is prorogued, but be suspended while Parliament is dissolved. That would be for the simple reason that you would not want to have a parliamentary petition system potentially used for electoral purposes. Also, procedurally speaking, the membership of the House has to be reconstituted.
The proposal at hand indicates that e-petitions be presented in the House of Commons only once a certain threshold of signatures has been reached. The committee may want to reflect on what would happen to e-petitions that do not garner the required number of signatures, or for which there is no member who agrees to present it. Perhaps they could be deemed withdrawn after a certain amount of time.
The procedure for presenting an e-petition in the House could also require consideration. For instance the committee could consider having only the certificate presented along with the text of the petition and the number of signatures rather than the entire list of names. This would also be in continuity with the paperless exercise. We can imagine with 100,000 signatures how many pages that would represent.
Now let us turn our attention to the issue of the authenticity of signatures. The current requirements for a signature and address may or may not suffice for e-petitions. While not offering the highest level of authentication, it appears that the basic e-mail confirmation system alluded to at your last meeting has proven to be a good, cost-effective measure.
During the last meeting as well, members also considered the monitoring of IP or Internet protocol addresses. Simply put, would a safeguard that detects the IP address of petitioners be effective at preventing a single person from submitting numerous signatures? It is to be noted that an IP address is a series of four numbers that identifies initiating devices and various Internet destinations making two-way communication possible. These days it is very common for a single organization to have a router with an IP address that corresponds to a number of computers on a local area network, as is the case at the House of Commons. Therefore, blocking multiple signatories from the same IP address may prevent legitimate signatures on e-petitions from people accessing the Internet from within the same organization, such as a public library or Internet café. That said, we could monitor the IP addresses, for instance, if IP addresses come from outside the country.
In conjunction with determining what information will be required from signatories to an e-petition, the committee will also need to consider in detail the key issues of security and privacy for petitioners. For instance, what level of detail should be displayed on the public website? Some systems display the name and the location of each signatory. For instance, it could be the name of the individual and the province. Others display only the name of the person who initiated the petition and the total number of signatories, so no names of each petitioner.
Also, how long should data regarding petitions and their signatories be stored on the site and in our systems? That is another question that will need to be answered.
Our unique culture and context will surely continue to shape this committee's discussions and decisions. For instance, all information posted on the parliamentary Web site is in both official languages. This should probably hold true for e-petitions.
That said, as is the case for individuals submitting briefs to parliamentary committees, it would be the House administration that could assume responsibility for translating the prayer of e-petitions. That way, they would be available in both official languages.
Finally, I would like to conclude with some information regarding the implementation and costs associated with an e-petition system. As you can imagine, they are highly dependent on the determined features and requirements, such as: the level of workflow complexity related to the initiation of an e-petition; the level of integration with our internal system—and I think you alluded to that at the last meeting; the extent to which we want to develop a mobile-friendly application—for instance, today close to 50% of the people who go on our website do it through a mobile application; the level of assurance of the signatory's identity; and the volume of e-petition participation. As of yesterday morning, before we proceeded with the petitions in the afternoon, during routine proceedings we had 3,797 petitions that were tabled in the House this year. Many more were certified, but close to 4,000 petitions were tabled in the House. We have a very high volume of petitions here at the House of Commons.
That said, we have some preliminary information for the committee, which is based on our evaluation of a solution that would offer generally the same features as the model used in the United Kingdom, which you alluded to at the last meeting as well. A high-level estimate would lead us to believe that an initial investment of $100,000 to $200,000 would be required. To this, you would probably need to add around 20% for ongoing technical costs. Furthermore, this does not take into account the extra staff that potentially—and we say potentially; we'll have to evaluate that—could be needed to manage the system.
In our estimation the development and implementation phases could take from three to six months. That would be three to six months after the approval of a business case, as you can imagine, by the Board of Internal Economy.
Observers will tell you that the e-petition system is not perfect. In fact, it simply reproduces, some would say even multiplies, the qualities and challenges of the system for traditional paper petitions. In that perspective, if it wishes to support the idea of e-petitions, the committee's task is to mitigate the difficulties enumerated and build on its possibilities. The administration of the House would be there to help the procedure and House affairs committee and the House of Commons to meet that objective.
We look forward to assisting the committee as it considers these important issues and will be happy to answer any questions.
Merci.
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View Tom Lukiwski Profile
CPC (SK)
Thank you very much, Monsieur Gagnon, for being here.
Thank you for your opening statement. I think you raised a lot of questions, perhaps more questions than we had anticipated when we first started discussing this with Mr. Stewart. I'm starting to get a sense of why, when this was raised last, I think 10 years ago, it was deferred. We're getting back to it now.
However, one of the first questions I raised when Mr. Stewart was here and I think it was generally accepted and agreed upon by the committee was the concern that we have as a committee about privacy. I think it was generally accepted that we all believed the information contained on e-petitions should not be allowed to be data mined by political parties particularly, and perhaps others in general, and that information, personal information and addresses of the signatories, should be kept private.
What assurances could you give us or have you any advice for us as to how we might be able to achieve that goal by allowing valid signatories to be presented in an e-format, yet at the same time preventing others from using that information for political purposes?
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André Gagnon
View André Gagnon Profile
André Gagnon
2014-11-18 11:41
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In fact, what's interesting with the system presented so far is that we would need a lot of information at the beginning. For instance, what I understood is that there would be follow up after a petition is being answered. We would send back to the individual who has signed the petition the government's response to the petition that the individual has signed. We need that information.
The first question is, do we need that information? Yes, we need it. We need it as well to authenticate the signature. That said, already in a significant portion of the work that the House does a lot of personal information is gathered. For instance, a lot of individuals appear before committee and they provide us with a lot of information that could be useful. A lot of people send a lot of information regarding their opinions on different issues. The Standing Committee on Finance has received over 800 briefs or statements. The information that was relayed to members of Parliament, that was relayed on the website, is done in a way which is very respectful of privacy. That said, we have that information with us and it was kept confidential. We think with the system we've established so far we would be in a position to do so. That said, we could certainly get some advice from this committee in terms of after the information has been sent to the individuals. Let's say the government response has been made, there was a debate in the House, and the individuals who signed have been advised that there was a debate in the House. We could at that time most probably erase that information totally.
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View Tom Lukiwski Profile
CPC (SK)
Yes, I guess that's what I'm getting at here. I don't know if this is a suggestion or just a consideration, but once we have the relevant information and all the back and forth between the signatories and the House administration has occurred, are you suggesting that you would have the ability to completely erase and strike from the record any information that might otherwise be abused?
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André Gagnon
View André Gagnon Profile
André Gagnon
2014-11-18 11:43
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Yes. I can also add as well that the information.... When there's a petition tabled in the House, it's given to the government for a response, as you can imagine. The information that would be provided to the government would not have the information we are talking about as well. It would never get out of our systems and could be erased as immediately as possible.
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View Tom Lukiwski Profile
CPC (SK)
Thank you for that.
With paper petitions, is there any opportunity for abuse under the current system where the names of the individuals are all listed in written form? They are presented to the table when petitions are tabled. Where are they stored, and is there any opportunity for anyone to get their hands on that information currently?
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André Gagnon
View André Gagnon Profile
André Gagnon
2014-11-18 11:44
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First of all we need to see what type of information is on the paper petitions. Most of the time you would not get very much detailed information on the individual. People can be identified through a general address, which would not be exactly useful for electoral purposes, if that's the concern you have.
Once a paper petition is tabled in the House, it's provided to the government. The government would respond to it. They would keep essentially the first page or two of it after counting the.... You may be in a position to have more information than I do on that one. The rest of the petition is not kept.
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View Tom Lukiwski Profile
CPC (SK)
Let's turn for a brief moment to the ability you have to actually validate the authenticity of the signatories. You spoke of it in your written submission. Could you give me again a bit of an overview of how you would plan to authenticate that the signatures that were e-filed were actually those of real Canadian citizens instead of bogus names?
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André Gagnon
View André Gagnon Profile
André Gagnon
2014-11-18 11:45
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The process would be the following: an individual goes on the website, sees a petition that he or she would like to sign, and pushes the button “I would like to sign the petition”. After that you would get a form that you would need to fill out with your name, your phone number, and your address, and you would have to have your e-mail address as well so we could provide you with more information afterwards. Then you would have to check a box that says, “I am a Canadian citizen and I understand I'm signing a petition”, all those things. Afterwards at the bottom you check “I want to sign this petition.”
Sorry, I forgot to say that you would also have to fill in the box where there is a random number so that you would not be able to multiply the signature with a robot. You would have to fill in that box.
This is the first part of it. You push the button, and this sends you to our system. An e-mail would go to the individual saying, “You have signed a petition and, if you confirm that you want to sign the petition, please push this button—click here”. That would be the way to authenticate it.
That is probably the most cost-effective way to authenticate a signature.
Again, as I mentioned at the end, the e-petition system has challenges, some of the challenges that paper petitions have. As you can imagine, today the authentication of paper petitions is not even that thorough.
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View David Christopherson Profile
NDP (ON)
Thank you for being here today, gentlemen.
I have a couple of observations and questions sort of from a 30,000-foot perspective, although I want to get on the record because you never know when there's going to be an election.
This is one of the funniest things I ever heard. Every time I say 30,000 feet, it reminds me of Laurie Hawn when we were debating something. Laurie Hawn jumped in after I had made this great argument about what happens when you see things from 30,000 feet. He said, “I'm a former jet fighter pilot. You know what you see from 30,000 feet? Nothing.” Anyway it was one of the greatest comebacks, and I want to give him his due on that one.
Having said that, taking a sort of overall perspective of things, when we have these great ideas as politicians, as parliamentarians, that we think are just fantastic ideas and are going to make democracy hit the sweet spot, we meet with folks like you who actually have to turn these things into reality. Often we get a bit of a shock that you, the administration, are not always as enthused as we are about these brilliant ideas we get.
I have to say my sense in this case, though, is I'm not hearing a lot of pushback. I'm not hearing you saying, “Members, be very careful. There are very serious things here.” You're pointing out some issues that we need to come to grips with and questions that need to be answered, but my sense is that you're not sounding the alarm that we're heading down a road we may regret, but that this is doable if we answer the right questions and do this properly. It sounds like your thinking is that this is doable.
Now, those are all my words. Please respond in whatever way best reflects your thinking, sir.
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André Gagnon
View André Gagnon Profile
André Gagnon
2014-11-18 11:49
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Our role as the administration would be to provide assistance and advice on the different projects that a committee and the House choose to support.
The House adopted the motion recommending that this committee look at this issue. Clearly there was a decision of the House on that specific issue. It was a very tight decision, but it was a decision of the House. This committee has decided to look at it very seriously.
It seems that what we have decided to do from our perspective is to look at the issue and how it can be implemented. I've seen that the committee has studied that very rigorously. A lot of the questions that were raised were the ones that we would have raised anyway. That said, they were raised in this forum and it was well handled. That's where I would leave it.
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View David Christopherson Profile
NDP (ON)
Very good. Thank you. I appreciate that.
So far in our deliberations, any differences of opinion are more a matter of seeing challenges. We've been working cooperatively so far on this issue and I have reason to believe that it's going to continue that way.
Assuming we could get our ducks in order and answer all these questions, what kind of timeframe would it take for us to put this in place? By that I am also asking about the Standing Orders. Just for the sake of argument let's say we decide to make this a priority because we thought we could have a meeting of the minds, that it was a good move, and we're going to try to make it happen. If we did that and did it as quickly as we could in a political context, what kind of timeframe would it be? What would it take for us to actually go from today to be in a position to say to the Canadian public that they now have this new option to appeal to their Parliament? What kind of timeframe are we looking at, sir?
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André Gagnon
View André Gagnon Profile
André Gagnon
2014-11-18 11:51
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If this committee works very rapidly, there are other steps that would follow before we could take action. The first one would be to table a report in the House.
I'm not sure how the committee would like to work, whether it would be a report that would have changes to the Standing Orders already built into it or not. I'm not sure what the report would look like in the House. Once a report has been tabled and there is a decision of the House—because there needs to be a decision of the House—let's say the decision of the House is to make it happen. To make it happen would mean for us to try to find the funding for that. We would probably have to go before the Board of Internal Economy. I say this in a very simplistic way, but if we do that, we go before the board and get the funding, at that time you could count from three to six months, I would say, in a general fashion.
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André Gagnon
View André Gagnon Profile
André Gagnon
2014-11-18 11:52
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From the approval of funding, because we would need funding to proceed with that.
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View David Christopherson Profile
NDP (ON)
Okay. Very good. Thank you.
I'll just segue very quickly. You mentioned budget. In your opening comments you thought maybe $100,000 to $200,000 initially and then 20% ongoing. Just for context, what is the administration budget right now of the House?
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André Gagnon
View André Gagnon Profile
André Gagnon
2014-11-18 11:52
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The totality of the budget of the House is $400 million.
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View David Christopherson Profile
NDP (ON)
Right. Obviously dollars alone wouldn't be the stopper here. The ongoing operational cost you are saying is 20%. Is that going forward annualized?
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André Gagnon
View André Gagnon Profile
André Gagnon
2014-11-18 11:52
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Maybe I could ask Soufiane to give you the details regarding the technical aspect of it.
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Soufiane Ben Moussa
View Soufiane Ben Moussa Profile
Soufiane Ben Moussa
2014-11-18 11:53
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Yes, indeed, it is 20% of the investment, which will cover the hardware and licensing software.
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View David Christopherson Profile
NDP (ON)
That's an annualized cost. After we get it up and running, the initial costs would be about 20% the first year, but can we expect that percentage to continue going forward roughly?
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View David Christopherson Profile
NDP (ON)
It seems manageable to me. Are there any red flags you want to raise? It doesn't sound like a ton of money. It's not enough to stop it.
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André Gagnon
View André Gagnon Profile
André Gagnon
2014-11-18 11:53
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I would add that there's always a possibility as well regarding the staff who could be required to follow up on this initiative.
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View David Christopherson Profile
NDP (ON)
Right. Thank you.
Have you had an opportunity to study in any kind of detail the systems in some of the provinces and territories, but also internationally? Have you had that opportunity?
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André Gagnon
View André Gagnon Profile
André Gagnon
2014-11-18 11:53
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Yes, in a very superficial manner.
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André Gagnon
View André Gagnon Profile
André Gagnon
2014-11-18 11:54
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We could certainly say that in all of those cases the context, the unique culture of each Parliament or country, was taken into account. It would be difficult just to apply very simply an approach from one Parliament to another. For instance, would you think that the U.K. example could be easily done here? We're not exactly sure of that. The Scottish example as well. The idea that having the appearance of individuals.... For instance, in Scotland they attempted at a certain point a petition signed by only one member and one individual or citizen could appear before a committee because it's a valid request and all of those things. Can we imagine that in this country? I think it would be difficult. I think we need to look at those in a conceptual way and try to get the best out of those situations.
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View Kevin Lamoureux Profile
Lib. (MB)
View Kevin Lamoureux Profile
2014-11-18 11:55
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Welcome to the committee, Mr. Gagnon and Mr. Ben Moussa.
In order for us to accomplish anything tangible on this particular file, is it fair to say we would, in fact, have to make some changes to the Standing Orders? Can anything be done without making changes to the Standing Orders?
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