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Business - Written by on Monday, January 14, 2008 12:11 - 3 Comments

Bringing petitions into the digital era

Written petitions have long been an important means by which citizens can bring their concerns to public officials. Petitioning was common in 18th and 19th century England and is thought to have played an important role in enabling working class movements to force significant social and political reforms, and eventually universal suffrage. The tradition was later enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, where the First Amendment guarantees the right of the people “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Petitions typically have no legal effect, but the signatures of millions of people on a petition exerts a certain moral authority that is difficult for public officials to ignore, whether democratically elected or not. The freeing of Nelson Mandela was due, in large part, to the countless petitions presented to the United Nations that expressed worldwide contempt for the apartheid government.

The question now is what form will petitions take in the digital age? It seems logical enough that people are using the Internet to organize online petitions. But how will governments assess the authenticity of e-signatures? And might the relative ease of collecting signatures online have the unintended consequence of diminishing a petition’s moral authority? Collecting a million signatures by going door-to-door is an act of true political conviction, without question. Somehow collecting a million e-signatures seems less heroic. Or, is it?

e-petitionThe UK government’s has been experimenting with an e-petitions system on the UK Prime Minister’s own website and found itself wrestling with some of these concerns (see my comments on a previous blog). Popular petitions have been launched to demand that the government scrap the inheritance tax, repeal the ban on fox hunting and abandon planned national ID cards. But the biggest by far was a petition against the government’s road pricing proposal in February 2007, which surprised everyone by attracting over 1.8 million e-signatures from a population of 60 million people (although no one has verified that there was only one e-signature per person). The site was official, but experimental at the time. The whole exercise generated quite a row, with shocked government ministers unable to backtrack on the site’s existence in the face of national news coverage of the phenomenon. The incident has demonstrated both the potential and pitfalls of online e-petitions.

In light of the controversy, the UK Parliament’s Procedure’s Committee is now holding a public consultation to gather the views of the public on whether people would use an e-petitioning system (I think that question has already been answered!) and what they would expect from it.

The forum will run until Friday 15 February 2008 and a report is to be released after Easter. I’m looking forward to it.


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Danny Williamson
Jan 14, 2008 18:46

I think another important question is, “What happens next?” The popularity of the e-petitions system is obvious but by largely, ignoring the results, the government runs the risk of adding online petitions to the long list of political matters about which, citizens have become disinterested and disillusioned.

A problem, as a colleague pointed out to the other day, is the lack of framework for translating the results of these petitions into action. There is no way of citizen knowing what, if any, the result of their efforts will be. I too, am looking forward to the final report on the consultation.

Wikinomics » Blog Archive » Petition this.
Feb 12, 2008 23:52

[...] most quoted example supporting e-petitioning is the UK government’s 10 Downing Street e-petitions [...]

May 28, 2009 10:37

[...] a large number of signatures enforce a moral authority on governments, that can’t be ignored. Anthony Williams gives the example of how Nelson Mandela’s release from prison can, in part, be attributed to [...]

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