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Cancel ID cards, un-ban the hunt, and resign - Tony B's e-petitions

Press red button for e-government. Not.

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Earlier this week the Government's Ten Downing Street web site launched the beta of an e-petitions system in conjunction with mysociety.org, which runs a string of worthy and useful government-related sites, most of them orders of magnitudes more effective than their government-run equivalents. But looking at some of the petitions already filed however, one wonders whether Number Ten can be quite as enthusiastic about the project on Friday as it was on Tuesday.

The ID card mujahedin were naturally in there early, petitioning the PM to scrap ID cards, and by Friday this had scored over 700 signatures (sign here, people - you know it makes sense). But the 200 petitions listed as of Friday (out of a total of almost 500 claimed by Downing Street) provide a fascinating who's who of lobby groups, together with indications of how quick off the mark, organised and numerous they are. Way ahead by a long chalk is (all numbers accurate as of 1.30pm Friday, UK time) a call for the repeal of the 2004 Hunting Act, with 4,465. A call not to replace Trident gets 1,075, abolish the monarchy 206, and award a posthumous George Cross to DC Stephen Oake (who was murdered by would-be ricin terorist Kamel Bourgass) 578.

These are all issues most people will have heard of, and some at least of the more popular will be ones likely to be supported by the Prime Minister (e.g. the Stephen Oake one, which has the added advantage of being something he can't readily do anything about). Others (e.g. abolish the monarchy) can and will be shrugged off as not genuinely representing public opinion. But massive numbers against ID cards, for stopping Trident or pro-hunting become more difficult to ignore if (as is the case) Number Ten is making a big thing of e-petitions as part of its 'listen to the people' spin offensive. And there are a couple of petitions in there already on the lines of 'resign now' , so what could Mr Tony do if these people got organised and gained some traction?

Some of the ones not up on the site yet are likely to be a tad racier. Downing Street says they all have to be checked prior to going "to ensure that, for example, they are not party political, obscene or libellous." An alternative spin on this is provided by the splendidly uncompromising Tim Ireland, hinting at his plans for addressing "the next set of dirt-bags who gain overall power" and saying: "My original petition is certain to be rejected as my describing a lying, torturing murdering bastard as a lying, torturing murdering bastard is bound to be classified as 'a false or defamatory statement'", and that he has therefore decided to see "how far I get calling on him to stand on his head and juggle ice-cream". So far, this far.

But aside from tending to make those running them start to wonder why they gave people this stick to beat them with, e-petitions have other problems, not least the 'what's the point' problem exhibited by the Scottish Parliament's wide-ranging, long-running and worthy e-petitions initiative. In all probability at least one person somewhere thinks each and every one of these petitions is a worthwhile exercise (this is not necessarily certain, as at time of writing one Downing Street petition had no signatures yet), but many of the Scottish petitions that have been posted, signed and submitted over the past several years have been highly local and special interest, even within Scotland. And although the Internet does do local and special interest group, it's not necessarily the same kind of local as is the case in the real world, and national systems such as the Scottish or the Downing Street ones can't really deal properly with this.

Which can produce petitions like this one where a whole seven people called for the regularisation of Scottish school holidays - no doubt a perfectly sane and sensible suggestion, but you could do better spending half an hour going round the neighbours with a clipboard, so what's the point of the Internet? Which is a question we often ask ourselves, particularly on a Friday afternoon... ®

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