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Is the White House Doing Enough for 'We the People?'

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, November 2 2011

The White House's responses to recent petitions on their brand-new e-petitions platform have angered some people who don't think the administration is serious enough about their promise to listen online.

Launched in September, the White House's official "We the People" online petition platform is supposed to work like this: If someone with a valid email address signs up and gets 150 email-addresses-as-signatures on a petition asking the White House to take some action, then that petition becomes public, and anyone can see it and sign on as well; after 25,000 signatures, that petition has earned an official response from the White House. Administration officials began responding to petitions last week with the choreographed announcement that President Barack Obama had ordered new measures to help people with student loan debt. That move was billed as a response to a petition on the subject. Afterward, more replies began appearing: to petitions on marijuana policy, allegations of judicial misconduct in a high-profile court case, patent law and more. But but most of these are largely reiterations of the administration's existing policies. Petition signatories have gained a response from the administration little different from a pre-approved response on a given topic that a constituent might receive after sending a letter to their representative in the U.S. House, and it's making some petitioners pretty angry.

One petition specifically calls out the Obama administration's response to an earlier plea for action on software patents. The White House response basically reiterates President Barack Obama's existing position on patent reform.

"The Obama Administration's response to a previous petition shamefully attempted to absolve the President of responsibility and placate us with the toothless America Invents Act. We summarily reject his response and demand immediate action," says the new petition, posted Tuesday.

Another petition now gaining signatures is titled, "actually take these petitions seriously instead of just using them as an excuse to pretend you are listening."

With about 11,000 signatures as of this writing, it reads, in part:

An online petition is not meant as a replacement for using a search box in a web browser. We the People, those who grant you the power to govern in the first place, are requesting changes in policy directly, circumventing legislators who already do not listen to us. We the People request you govern FOR us, which means actually listening to us and actually acting in our interests instead of special interests.

Both were spotted first by Patently-O, a patent law blog.

The quality of responses isn't the only thing that's angering would-be petitioners. J.H. Snider, who maintains the website, has posted a series of critical tirades on Huffington Post. On Monday, he took the White House to task for not releasing information about the number of petitions that don't gain enough signatures to become public or to garner a response.

"Public access to petitions is covered under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)," Snider wrote. "The Open Government Directive mandates that Federal agencies should post public documents online unless there is a compelling reason, such as cost, not to. The White House is thus violating its own mandate and setting a terrible example for the agencies."

Snider has also complained that the registration process might be too difficult for some users, and on some browsers, the registration form is actually too buggy to use. In addition, he says, CAPTCHA boxes — forms where users are presented with an image that contains some often hard-to-read text and asked to type it in, a mechanism intended to separate human users from automated ones — can also become frustrating for some users.

And ever since launch day, the We the People site has suffered from uptime problems. Snider complains that petition sign-up forms became inaccessible just as he and his wife were getting the word out about their own petitions, costing them signatures.

"On October 27, 2011, the website was down during business hours for at least one hour," he wrote. "Another day I clocked more than two hours of outages."

Snider says he thinks the online petition website is a significant new tool for democracy, but it isn't living up to its potential.

Advocates who I spoke to around the launch of We the People told me they figured the value of the platform would be determined by the significance of the responses. the first one came with a policy change that the White House said was a response to a petition about student debt, but also mostly accelerated the pace of changes already in the works and happened to be in line with the president's policy goals. It seemed to Jim Gilliam, a longtime Internet activist, that the White House was using 30,000 petition signatories as a "cudgel" to give the heft of grassrootsiness to a policy shift that Congress wasn't going to move on. Not every petition, it seems, is ripe for the White House to pick up and use.

I've reached out to White House digital director Macon Phillips for comment but haven't heard anything yet. I will update if I do.