Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

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 WhiteHouse.gov; 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.

News Briefs

RSS Feed wednesday >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

What Has the EU Ever Done For Us?: Countering Euroskepticism with Viral Videos and Monty Python

Ahead of the May 25 European Elections, the most intense campaigning may not be by the candidates or the political parties. Instead, some of the most passionate campaigns are more grassroots efforts focused on for a start stirring up the interest of the European electorate. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.

GO

tuesday >

Ruck.us Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like Democracy.com

Ruck.us launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new Ruck.us is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and Democracy.com. And strangely enough, Ruck.us seems to want its early users to ask Democracy.com for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.

GO

monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.

GO

The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.

GO

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.

GO

More