P.J. Vogt, a producer for NPR’s “On The Media,” was surprised to find that a “We the People” epetition had played a role in the FCC moving to make a deal with wireless carriers that will allow consumers to unlock their cellphones.
He’s not alone. Historic lows in trust in the federal government mean that any progress toward a positive outcome — like legal unlocking of mobile devices — is viewed skeptically in public discourse.
Should carriers actually allow consumers to unlock those devices, it would be the the open government platform has now played a role in U.S. history.
I’ve been following the White House epetition system since it launched, more than 2 years ago. Prior to the 2012 election, this open government effort was a relatively slow burn, in terms of growth. Until the fall of 2012, the most significant role it had played came in January of that year, when the White House took an official position on petitions on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), changing the political context for the bills.
As I’ve observed before, on the evening of December 20, 2012, however, President Barack Obama responded to 32 different e-petitions related to gun violence. It was the first direct response to an e-petition at The White House by a President of the United States. While this remains the only e-petition that the President has responded to personally, before or since, it was a milestone in digital government, marking the first time that the President spoke directly to the people through the Internet about an issue they had collectively asked to be addressed using the Internet.
By January 2013, it had 5 million users. Now, there are over 10 million. It’s the first open government platform to reach that scale of use, in no small part due to the epic response to the Death Star petition that drew both Internet-wide and mainstream media attention.
And here’s the thing: most of those users are satisfied with the responses. Not all of them have resulted in policy shifts — in fact, only a few have, like a rulemaking on online puppy mills — but the ones that did are significant: SOPA/PIPA, increasing public access to scientific research online, and supporting consumers unlocking their mobile devices.
More challenging requests lie ahead. An epetition for the administration to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act just passed the 100,000 signature threshold this week, requiring a response.
The epetition will join a dozen or so popular online petitions that have passed the threshold, some of which have lingered unanswered for over a year.
This tardiness of response might lead critics of the administration to conclude that this White House putting off public responses to popular petitions it finds politically inconvenient, like the one to pardon Edward Snowden.
Even if that’s the case, if this trend continues, these epetitions from the American people look a bit less like a useless exercise in democracy theater at week’s end.
In 2014, the White House has announced a plan to launch a public version of the application programming interface (API) for “We The People,” enabling third parties to build applications on top of it.
Should mainstream adoption continue, American citizens may find a bonafide means to exercise their right to petition the United States government for the redress of grievances in the public desire of the twenty-first century.