Hermione Eyre: Is our democracy helped by e-petitions?

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The Independent Online

100,000 signatures isn't what it was. It is currently the "magic threshold" used for government e-petitions: cross it and your idea is given a parliamentary debate. But as Labour MP Natascha Engels explained yesterday, online campaigns can now marshal this number of signatures "in a week".

The online revolution is changing our sense of scale. Real-world concepts (such as "friend" or "like") are only vaguely analogous to their meaning online. The Government's potentially brilliant but currently fledgling e-petition system needs to recognise this as it refines its workings. In the pre-digital past, signing a petition required a degree of public commitment, even if it only meant looking one person in the eye. By contrast, the names of e-petition signatories are currently not revealed, even to its organisers.

Anonymity, as we are discovering, can be dangerously disinhibiting. Reading the e-petition website is like peeping into the communal unconscious. It is, above all things, authentic: even the spelling is raw, since refining a petition after it has been submitted is not permitted. Reduce the "nummer" of immigrants, asks one petition.

Collecting signatures used to involve old-fashioned, bothersome activities such as leaving the house, buying pens and paper, knocking on doors and accosting strangers: now, these efforts have been replaced by viral marketing and social media campaigns. In the past, a degree of serendipity and mutual effort drew support towards a campaign. By contrast, the e-petitions are all inventoried online, for maximum convenience. It is possible to go through the list cherrypicking causes to support in a matter of minutes.

The present system is better than the last (which closed before the last election, after letting some corkers through such as "Prevent Paul McCartney from relesing [sic] any more bad songs"), but e-petition must be allowed to evolve if it is to be a useful addition to democracy. Better to raise the threshold of signatures than watch the mounting panic of MPs like Natascha Engels as they contemplate parliamentary timetables. Better still to set more useful goals for a petition than a debate in parliament: some issues might be better served by a select committee hearing or a statement in parliament.

The blunt instrument of 100,000 signatures also means that some important but uncharismatic issues (such as the petition asking that new jobs at Thameslink should go to British workers) seem insignificant (so far, it has around 8,000, a relatively large number for such a specific issue). We should not let the internet impose a new super-scale X Factor for ideas, but use it to refine and improve the way our opinions inform the public and the politicians.