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U.K. lawmakers will use Zoom to create a virtual Parliament

Lawmakers in the U.K. will use Zoom to question government ministers in the nation’s House of Commons debating chamber.

The virtual question-and-answer sessions will enable lawmakers to scrutinize the government while abiding by social distancing rules prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, and will mark the first time in the Commons’ 700-year history for debates to be held via a video link.

How will it work?

From next week, subject to approval by lawmakers in a vote on Monday, the parliamentary sessions will use video-conferencing software Zoom on several large video screens placed around the House of Commons chamber so that the Speaker and those present can see their “virtual” colleagues.

Up to 120 lawmakers at a time will join debates via the video link, while around 50 will be allowed to attend the chamber in person, spacing out on the benches to avoid contact with others.

In an effort to make sure that all lawmakers are treated equally, anyone attending via Zoom will be told to refrain from displaying particular objects designed to illustrate or enhance their contributions.

House of Commons
The House of Commons before business was suspended last month due to COVID-19. Image used with permission by copyright holder

Commenting on the historic move to go virtual, Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle said: “By initiating a hybrid solution, with steps towards an entirely virtual Parliament, we are enabling Members to stay close to their communities, while continuing their important work scrutinizing the government.” Hoyle added: “I do not want Members and House staff putting themselves at risk — by working virtually, this is our contribution to the guidance of stay home, protect the National Health Service, and save lives.”

Lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg said the measures will enable Parliament to continue its work of “conducting scrutiny, authorizing spending, and making laws — all of which are essential to tackling coronavirus.”

For U.K. lawmakers and the wider public, the seriousness of the pandemic was recently brought into sharp focus when Prime Minister Boris Johnson ended up in intensive care for several days with severe symptoms of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

Zoom’s popularity … and problems

Zoom has become the video-conferencing platform of choice in recent weeks after the pandemic forced millions of people around the world to work from home. But as the software experienced a sudden and massive uptick in use, it also faced heavy criticism for what many said were lax security protections and privacy policies.

Some of those criticisms arose from so-called “zoombombing” incidents where pranksters interrupt virtual meetings by showing obscene content or performing other shenanigans. British lawmakers could be in for a few surprises if anything like that happens during one of their upcoming debates.

In the U.S., senators have reportedly been warned to steer well clear of Zoom over privacy concerns.

The California-based company behind Zoom recently claimed to have bolstered its security and privacy to provide a more reliable and safer service. Digital Trends has a useful guide on how to set up the software for trouble-free video conferences, though if you’d prefer to use an alternative platform for your virtual meetings, Digital Trends has some suggestions for alternatives that are worth checking out.

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Trevor Mogg
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