Petition for the Accessibility of the Portuguese Internet
Portuguese VersionDate: 1999-10-20
COMMISSION FOR CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS,
RIGHTS, LIBERTIES AND GUARANTIES
Petition for the Accessibility of the Portuguese Internet
1. This petition was presented to the Assembly of the Republic by around 9000 citizens, who propose the adoption of a set of basic rules to be applied in the production of the information made available on the Internet by the Government and all other public services, with the purpose of facilitating its access to people with special needs, specially people with disabilities and the elderly.
The petition was delivered through the Internet, by means of an electronic mail message addressed to the Office of His Excellency the President of the Assembly of the Republic containing in attachment the text of the petition and some additional documents, as well as a list of its proponents.
Accordingly to the information supplied by the two first proponents of the petition, the gathering of the subscriptions was also conducted through the Internet, as people supplied the personal data required to verify of the authenticity of that subscription, specifically their name, identity card number and email address.
The personal data thereby supplied by the subscriptors was inserted in a database previously registered in the National Commission for the Protection of Personal Data, followed by its verification and the elimination of all duplicated or invalid subscriptions.
2.About the form of subscription and delivery of the petition some doubts were raised by the technical support services of this Commission, in an information supplied at 16th March 1999.
Basically, those doubts relate to the admissibility of the substitution of the proponents’ signature by the mere indication of its name and identity card number.
In fact, it is stated in article 9º/2 of Law nº 43/90, of 10th August, with the text that was in Law nº 6/93, of 1st March – Law of the Exercise to the Right of Petition – that the petition shall be in a written form, properly signed by its signatories or by someone else on their behalf, if those cannot or know not how to sign.
The same is stated in article 249º/1 of the Regiment of the Assembly of the Republic, which regulates the form of the petitions presented there.
The question is therefore in knowing if, as the petition was not literally signed by its proponents, it should be rejected, or in any case its proponents invited to proceed to its correction, by presenting the respective signature.
Being, however, a petition subscribed by a considerable number of citizens, and considering that the gathering of those subscriptions was done through the Internet, it seems difficult that it could be corrected on time to be appreciated in the current legislature. Except if it was accepted, as proposed by the support services of the Commission, that only the two first proponents were invited to sign the petition, in which case the petition would be admitted and appreciated exclusively by the Commission due to not having the regular number of signatures required by the Regiment to be presented to the Plenary.
3. The doubts raised by the support services of the Commission are pertinent, but we do not follow them entirely.
If it is certain that the redaction of the law does not give much freedom to the qualification of the form of subscription of this petition as a truthful and proper signature, specifically for not being yet regulated in our juridical order, as it should be already, the value of an electronic signature, it is not less true that its spirit aims to safeguard the authenticity of the will contained in that subscription.
And in that subject we have no doubts of the genuine character of the will manifested by the majority of the proponents of this petition, and even less of the will manifested by the two first proponents, that besides being correctly identified have maintained several contacts with members of this Commission, including the Deputy responsible for this report.
In fact, the Deputy responsible for this report was directly contacted, by electronic mail, by hundreds of subscribers of the petition, asking for more urgency in its appreciation and resolution, which eliminates any doubts about the authenticity of their will.
Since now the problem of taking this to Plenary does not pose any more, by clear agenda overload until the end of the present legislature, it would be excessive to interpret the applicable legal and regimental dispositions in a sense that would prevent the appreciation of the petition by the Commission, or postpone excessively that appreciation.
Not only digital communication is a new reality, for which there was no fully awareness at the time those legal and regimental dispositions were approved, one could always invoke, by analogy, the "pro actione" principle, by which the formalities are instituted by law to ensure the correct handling of the request, and not as barriers to its appreciation and decision. Furthermore, recently, the law n. 135/99, of 24th April, stated the possible use of electronic mail to communicate with public services.
In this way it is considered that the required conditions are met for this petition to be appreciated by this Commission.
In fact, the presentation of this petition, by the way it was processed, is itself a significant manifestation of the raising electronic democracy, and it is not possible to ignore the growing of civic participation that results from the use of new forms of communication, specifically the Internet.
On the contrary, this petition should receive the attention of the Assembly of the Republic and the other organs of the republic, so that in the future their procedures become adequate to the new technological realities of the information society.
4. The considerations made about the admissibility of the present petition clearly indicate the importance of the goals that it aims, given the democratic dimension that lies in the use of the new forms of communication.
What it is about, after all, is to ensure the equality of access to the information available through the Internet to all people with special needs, specially the people with disabilities and the elderly.
As stated by the subscribers of the present petition, rules should be adopted by the Government and other public services that make available information on the Internet to ensure that accessibility independently of the specific situation of each user, as well as a set of symbols that allow the identification of an information server compatible with those rules.
Those rules should allow:
a) the interaction with the information systems without requiring vision, pointing devices, precise movements or simultaneous actions;
b) the understanding of information and navigation by audio and visual means.
This means that, by applying the referred rules, the access and interaction with the Internet, at least with respect to the essential content of the information offered by the Government and other public entities, would be independent or redundant in its sensorial and manipulation forms, since the same could be, depending on each case and technical device used, visioned, converted to speech or Braille, or at least printed for subsequent consultation in more favorable conditions.
That is, visual, hearing or motor disabilities or of any other nature would cease to constitute an obstacle to the understanding of the essential content of the information made available, that would be accessible in an universal way.
It is, therefore, another perspective about the delicate problem of info-exclusion, that does not attend the limitations imposed by the economical or social conditions of the citizens, specifically the ones related to the cost of equipment and the telecommunications services, but focus on the limitations imposed by their physical condition and related to the form as the public information is produced and made available.
5. Being innovative in its shape and content, the present petition does not ignore other efforts that have been developed on other levels to face the same problem, be it at the international level, as the "Web Accessibility Initiative" promoted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), or even the "National Initiative for the Citizens with Special Needs" promoted by the Government through the Mission for the Information Society.
In a way, the proposals formulated in this petition are followed of the same principles that are in the base of the existing legislation regarding the elimination of physical barriers to the people with disabilities, specifically the law n. 123/97, of 22nd May, recently approved by the Government, which endorses the adoption of a set of technical rules to eliminate the architectonic barriers in public buildings, collective equipment and ways to provide better accessibility to people with conditioned mobility.
In fact, the digital barriers which we are discussing are only another dimension of the same accessibility problem to the public services of people with special needs, and so it deserves an adequate consideration.
In that perspective, the Assembly of the Republic, through the Commission for Constitutional Affairs, Rights, Liberties and Guaranties, cannot be dissociated of the purposes of the present petition, specially being it a matter that directly relates to the promotion of the principle of equality and to the full integration of people with disabilities in society’s life.
6. It is not our task, in this Commission, to discuss the merits of the specific rules proposed in the "Accessibility Guide" presented by the subscribers of the petition.
Those rules belong to the strict technical domain, for which the law can dispatch but that is strange to itself, specially in cases like this one, in which the technological evolution does not recommend the crystallization in law of solutions that, by definition, are flexible and adaptable to the circumstances of each different case.
Besides, even if there were reasons to consider that in this matter the law should go beyond the enunciation of the great principles that we have referred to, we would always conclude that that would lie in the reserved domain of the legislative competence of the Government, since the procedures to adopt in the production of the information to be made available by the dependent public services constitutes, clearly, matter of its own organization and functioning (artº 198º/2 CRP).
There is no impediment, however, that the Assembly of the Republic, through this Commission, fulfill his duty of representation, and manifests its commitment in that the Government adopts, in the shortest period of time, rules that ensure the full accessibility of the information produced and made available by it on the Internet to people with special needs, specially the people with disabilities and the elderly.
In the same spirit, nothing stops the Assembly of the Republic to review, itself, its procedures and ensure the full accessibility of the information produced and made available by it on the Internet.
Therefore, it is proposed that the following be adopted
1º - The Assembly of the Republic, through the Commission of Constitutional Affairs, Rights, Liberties and Guaranties, considers that the full accessibility of the information produced and offerd by the Government and other public services on the Internet is a fundamental condition to the promotion of universality and equality in the exercise of the fundamental rights of citizens, specifically the ones related to their participation in the civic life.
In that sense,
2º - It is recommended to the Government that, considered the suggestions present in this petition, and in the shortest period of time, adopts the necessary and adequate measures to ensure the full accessibility of that information to all citizens with special needs, in particular the people with disabilities and the elderly.
In the same way,
3º - The Assembly of the Republic shall evaluate the way the information it produces is conceived and made available on the Internet, so that, also in the shortest period of time, measures will be taken to ensure that the essential content of that information is accessible in conditions of full equality by the citizens with special needs, in particular the people with disabilities and the elderly
The President of the Commission
The Deputy responsible for this report
São Bento Palace, 30th June 1999