Linux User Groups (LUG) and Canadian elected officials are responding to the news that the Canadian online census forms block free software users from participating. Last week's story helped uncover the fact that the software used for the online census seems to violate several government policies and treaties.
Some readers of the original article considered the issue of open access to government important enough to investigate and take action. Their findings add to the growing concern about the census among an activist minority of Canadians. Although agents at the Census Help Line had not heard of GNU/Linux when the article was posted, they have received enough complaints that they are familiar with it now.
The article was circulated in a news roundup distributed last week among employees of the Treasury Board, whose procurement policies seem to have been violated by the Census Web site, and stimulated the Vancouver LUG to contact other LUGs across Canada to coordinate a response to the situation.
The news also sparked discussion on the Ottawa chapter of Getting Open Source Logic INto Governments (GOSLING) mailing list. GOSLING is a collection of federal bureaucrats and consultants. Because many GOSLING members are government employees, the list is deliberately not archived online for their protection, and most members prefer to be cited anonymously, but much of the information cited in this article comes directly from this list.
After the article was published, I contacted Bill Siksay, Member of Parliament for Burnaby-Douglas, about the problem, as a constituent. Siskay wrote to Ivan P. Fellegi, chief statistician at Statistics Canada, the federal department responsible for the Census, and asked "what steps did Statistics Canada take to ensure that there would be wide ranging access to the on-line census by a variety of common operating systems, including the higher cost and lower cost systems? What reasons can you provide for the lack of access by Linux users?" He also complained about the "poor response" I received from Statistics Canada staff when I attempted to find answers on my own.
A week later, Fellegi has yet to reply. I did receive an email from Dale Johnston, assistant director, 2006 Census Communications, promising a reply "within the next day or two," but that was four days ago as this story was being filed.
The treatment of free software users is just part of a growing debate over how the 2006 census is being handled. For several weeks, one of the major issues has been that the processing of census results has been outsourced to Lockheed Martin Canada, a subsidiary of one of the largest defense contractors in the United States.
Despite Statistics Canada's assurance that "At no point does any contractor collect, handle, or possess confidential census responses," the concern is that the parent company in the United States may obtain confidential information about Canadian citizens, and be forced at some time to disclose it under the Patriot Act or an American court order. In response, CountMeOut.ca, which bills itself as "the minimum-cooperation Guide to the 2006 Canada Census," offers tips on how to comply with the legal requirements to complete the census while doing it in such a way that the information must be tabulated manually, rather than with Lockheed Martin Canada's software. It's unclear how realistic such concerns are, but, when added to the technical and policy issues, they create the perception that the entire census has been mishandled.