Ensuring Open Access to Video of Congressional Proceedings
The ability of the public to watch the legislative proceedings of Congress’s “both floor debate and committee hearingsâ€ is a significant component of what makes our government open and accessible. C-SPAN’s continual coverage on television and webcast video feeds from some House committees make it possible for citizens to see first-hand how Congress operates. Unfortunately, while all other records of government proceedings are a part of the public domain, C-SPAN’s de facto monopoly over broadcast-quality and archived video significantly restricts the ways in which the press can use video records when reporting on Congress. The House can and should provide the media greater access to its proceedings by extending its current recording infrastructure to cover all committee hearings, and by making live and archived access to these videos available directly to the public via the Internet.
Current State of Congressional Video Availability
Video records of Congress’s proceedings can be divided into two parts: records of House and Senate floor proceedings and records of committee hearings. The former are recorded by Capitol cameras and are provided to a small number of members of the press galleries. While these records are in the public domain, the public’s only comprehensive window into congressional proceedings is C-SPAN, which brands the video feed with its trademarked name and thus subjects use of the video to legal concerns. Committee proceedings have begun to be available from committee Web sites, although only in an ad-hoc manner and at low quality.
Public access to video is undercut by copyright and trademark restrictions. While C-SPAN has recently made an important step forward in granting use of their materials (more on that below), other considerations, such as financial and business considerations, continually put the public’s access to these videos in jeopardy. C-SPAN General Counsel Bruce Collins told The New York Times:
“What I think a lot of people don’t understand” C-SPAN is a business, just like CNN is. If we don’t have a revenue stream, we wouldn’t have six crews ready to cover Congressional hearings. 83
While we recognize C-SPAN’s legitimate fiscal responsibilities, it is unacceptable that, given technology currently available, the only way for the public to obtain video records of Congressional proceedings is to buy them on outdated VHS tapes for roughly $90 per video. 84
When C-SPAN contacted the office of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in February 2007, asking that C-SPAN-owned footage on her Web site be removed, the speaker’s office was in a unique position. Unlike the public, the speaker’s office had access to footage recorded by committee staff, and substituted that footage for C-SPAN’s on the speaker’s Web site. 85 The public, libraries, the press and citizen journalists only have access to the ‘old media,’? and this hinders the public’s ability to be fully aware of the activities of its government. The House should expand and improve its own video services to ensure that the public has unrestricted access to records of its government’s proceedings.
The public does have access to congressional video through the Library of Congress. However, the Library of Congress receives its copy of the footage from the audio/video departments of the House and Senate in a physical, rather than electronic, medium (in DVC-PRO format, which is only playable on DVC-PRO video players), sometimes months after the proceedings. The public can watch the videos if they go to the Library of Congress’s reading room to use its DVC-PRO video tape player. Or, for a fee, the Library will make physical copies of specific videos and mail them to individuals and institutions.
Committees are beginning to webcast hearings through their Web sites, and set their own policies in this regard. Most committees currently do not webcast hearings. The Library of Congress has no videos of committee hearings.
Other western countries make videos of their government proceedings directly available to the public on their governmental Web sites. Among the legislative bodies that make all floor proceedings and committee hearings available in live and archived form are the Canadian Parliament, the German Bundestag, the U.K. Parliament, the Parliament of Australia, and the Riigikogu of Estonia. 86
C-SPAN’s Recent Policy Changes
In March 2007, C-SPAN liberalized its copyright policy. It announced that ‘noncommercial copying, sharing and posting’? on the Internet of footage of Congressional hearings and other official proceedings for which it owns a copyright would be permitted without a license, provided attribution to C-SPAN was provided. 87 While this was a positive step, it is still highly restrictive, given that governmental proceedings are traditionally considered to have public domain status. As we know from the offline world, the media are seldom ‘noncommercial’?'â€they generally operate with an advertising-driven business model. C-SPAN’s license thus covers only the most casual of bloggers, and does not truly extend to journalists in the online world. It explicitly does not extend to journalists in the offline world. Among the uses of C-SPAN footage explicitly prohibited without permission is the use of their footage in ‘documentaries, films or television programs.’? 88 Even the most noncommercial of documentary, if sold to recover costs, cannot make use of videos of committee hearings except at the whim of C-SPAN executives. C-SPAN is to be commended for their revised policy, but it does not convey the spirit of promoting an open and transparent government.
It is our recommendation that all Congressional videos, floor proceedings and committee hearings be made available to the public over the Internet. There are three components to comprehensive video availability:
- ‘live and archived video streams downloadable, in high- and low-quality format, for reuse and remixing by the public
‘video metadata, including transcripts, timestamps at regular intervals, and, potentially, additional coding of speakers, segments, and subjects
‘user-friendly video players for live and archived videos on congressional Web sites for web users
These components should be available as a public domain work. High-quality streams would be used for digital libraries and public archival projects (we recommend streams encoded at 3 to 6MBs at 720×480 resolution), while low-quality webcasts would be available for casual citizen viewers. High-quality recordings should be archived, indexed (much like the Congressional Record is indexed) to enable the public to find relevant portions in long videos and made available for download. Along with the video, a transcript should be made available in a structured data format that ties speech segments in the transcript to the corresponding points in the video feed.
It is important to consider carefully the video data formats used for distribution. Proprietary and patented data formats may be the most commonly used, but they bring with them several important concerns, including locking citizens into using the products of a particular commercial provider and introducing economic obstacles to use of the feeds. They also exclude users of free software, for whom a third-party has control over how the video may be accessed. What’s more, future generations’ access to the information will be jeopardized if these data formats cease to exist. For these reasons, video produced and distributed by the House, especially the low-quality streams, should be made available in several formats, such as MPEG-4, which, while patent-encumbered, is nevertheless an open format that is generally accessible to software developers, and Flash Video (FLV), which is becoming more widely used. (Other data formats, while also proprietary or covered by patents, are less open and more egregiously embody the concerns above.) In the future, House staff should also consider the adoption of open, non-proprietary, patent-free formats, such as Ogg Theora, as they mature.
Carl Malamud, creator of the first webcasts of the House and Senate floors, has investigated the feasibility of providing over the Internet live, broadcast-quality video feeds of floor activity and of all committee hearings. Such feeds would create 3.6 gigabytes of data per hour of video, Malamud estimates, and while distributing this large amount of data will indeed incur a significant cost, it must be weighed against the significant benefit to the public. Malamud began collecting feeds from committee hearings that were available and noted the following advantages:
“For example, users are able to annotate hearings with ratings and reviews. The site allows users to both download and stream video, and the video has been converted to a non-proprietary standard that works across all different operating systems and players. And, because I am drawing on hearings from several different committees, it offers a degree of unification not available from the house.gov sites, which are all administered seperately [sic].”? 89
For floor proceedings and committees that already have cameras in place, the signal need only be split off and provided either to an accredited press gallery member to upload onto the Internet, or, as we hope, uploaded directly to the Internet by House staff. Cameras must be placed in any committee meetings that don’t yet have them.
89 Open letter from Carl Malamud to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, March 13, 2007, http://public.resource.org/dear_speaker.html