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Nerding Out on White House's We the People

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, September 22 2011

The White House this morning unveiled its "We the People" e-petitions platform, an online mechanism for generating a direct response from the federal government.

The gist, covered here, is that users can trade their name and email address for the chance to create an online petition. It's on each user to schlep their petition around to 150 people before it shows up in search results on; after that, anyone can see — and sign on — to the plea. If the petition accumulates 5,000 signatures within 30 days, the White House pledges to send it to the appropriate place inside the federal government to generate an official response.

It's a digital add-on to things citizens can already do, like snail-mailing petitions to the White House — or, rather, it will be, when it comes back online. As of this writing, the system was down for a bit, although White House New Media Director Macon Phillips promised on Twitter that it would be back online soon.

Notably, the petition system is set up to be social-media friendly: It prompts petitioners to share their request for a redress of grievances on Facebook and Twitter right off the bat. It also asks for the petitioner to finish the sentence, "We believe the Obama administration should ..." — and to do it in a Twitter-friendly 120 characters. (There's another field for a longer description.)

Close watchers of the White House's use of tech have stirred up a bit of a kerfuffle over the e-petition site's terms of participation, which ask users to "flag" petitions that they feel don't meet the site's criteria. (Basically, a petition must ask the federal government to do something within its power; the White House also reserves the right to take a pass on some law enforcement or judiciary questions to avoid the appearance of undue influence.)

Conservative Libertarian blogger and all-around online guy George Scoville doesn't like it, writing that for the White House to open a door for people to stifle speech they don't like is a bad call.

It "simply breeds malfeasance and online astroturf," he writes, especially in the context of a White House website.

O'Reilly Media's Alex Howard disagrees, pointing out that moderation is de rigueur anywhere on the Internet.

The terms and policies for using the site are out fairly comprehensive — and in plain English. The policies make it clear that the White House keeps the final say-so on whether or not a petition is inappropriate, lays out the criteria and explains that there's a process for appeal. And it doesn't look like "flags" are user-facing — so at least for now it looks like cries of "astroturf!" are premature. What might bear watching is whether or not the way this process has been structured leads to so many flags that White House staff are bombarded, something that people with experience in epetitioning warned the White House about when it announced a few weeks ago that this initiative was on the way.

Exactly what kind of word count this platform deserves won't be clear until the White House starts cranking out responses to petitions, but there are a couple of quick points to make.

On the social front, the platform doesn't connect petitioners to each other — if they want to find each other by cause or petition, they'd have to hunt around for one another on social networks, or have the foresight to link in their petition to a website or hashtag where they could go to find each other. One stated goal here is to start civil conversations about policy, which makes this a bit of a missed opportunity.

On the technological front, the White House is experiencing some launch-day difficulties with We the People. The platform has been alternately slow and down for maintenance since its launch this morning. There hasn't been any word yet on exactly what's throwing errors or how the White House staff plans to fix it.

This post has been corrected.