Six weeks ago, I wrote a piece for TechPresident that labeled the White House’s We The People petition site a “virtual ghost town.”
Last week, Congress passed a cell phone unlocking bill. President Obama signed it into law today. That’s noteworthy, since this particular Congress never passes anything. But it’s also noteworthy because the campaign to introduce this bill originated with a We The People e-petition. If you’re looking for evidence that the White House e-petition site is a big deal, this legislation has become Exhibit A.
But if we pause and listen to the originators of the petition itself, evidence of the very limitations I described in the article becomes quickly apparent:
“…One reason why the unlocking petition was more successful than others was because it was only a tool in the toolkit. While it was ongoing, I was arguing our cause in the media, writing op-eds, meeting with Congress, giving speeches, and working with think-tanks. We basically saw the petition as energy to reinforce our message and channel our support, not the entire ballgame. Some petition campaigns fail because they assume that the petition is it: you get it to 100,000 signatures and you win or lose. Some fail because they don’t have a ground presence in Washington, DC, trying to influence the actual channels that Members of Congress and their staff follow.”
The hardest part, according to Khanna, was keeping the momentum going after the e-petition succeeded and the White House responded, agreeing with the petitioners.
“We had no list-serve of our signatories, no organization, and no money,” he said. “It was extremely difficult. In fact, some of us were pushing for a more unified organization at the time. Others were more reluctant to go in that direction. A unified organization will be critical to future battles. Special interests were actively working against us and even derailed the original House bill after it passed Committee; having a unified organization would have helped move this process more quickly.” (emphasis added)
No listserv, no organization, no money. Those are three critical ingredients that online petition are usually supposed to help you develop.
And here’s Kyle Wiens and Sina Khanifar, writing at Wired.com
Fueled by Reddit, Hacker News, and others, the Internet rallied around a common theme: If you bought it, you should own it. We got noticed. The White House issued a formal response calling on Congress to fix unlocking.
Their We The People petition took off because key elements of the Internet’s “attention backbone” helped amplify it. That’s smart campaigning by Wiens, Khanifar, and Khanna. But it also points us toward a major limitation: if this had been a non-tech issue, then the sites that drove all those signatures probably wouldn’t have taken part.
Launching the online petition at We The People created the conditions for a formal response from the White House. That was a plus. We The People provided no help in amplifying the petitions through email and social media. That was neutral in this case, since Reddit, EFF, Public Knowledge, and others were helping to amplify instead. But the site left the petition-creators with no residual list for follow-up actions. That’s a huge minus.
If the petition had been launched through a different site (like Change.org), then it would have been less likely to get a formal White House response, but more likely to facilitate the follow-up actions that Khanna/Howard, Wiens and Khanifar say are vital to eventual success.
So maybe “ghost town” isn’t the right metaphor for We The People. Instead, maybe we should think of We The People as Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. It seems deserted 98% of the time. But once in a while, a well-organized community shows up and uses it to organize a massive event. (…I suppose in this case, they burned a cell phone contract instead of a giant stick-figure-man.)
The cell phone unlocking bill is rare good news out of the U.S. Congress. Congratulations are due to the organizers who petitioned, rallied, cajoled and lobbied to make it possible.
I’m not sure how big of a win it is for digital government writ large, though. Wiens, Khanifar and Khanna effectively navigated the limitations of the petition site. They didn’t disprove those limitations.