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.