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Hasselhoff, paedophiles, and a digital Animal Farm

Why David Cameron's e-petitions scheme needs rebooting

Column David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, last week recommended that online "e-petitions" should be given formal recognition within Britain's constitution.

The Prime Minister's controversial e-petitions website, which forms part of the 10 Downing Street official website, allows users to start campaigns on specific topics, then seek signatories. The site caused a headache for the government earlier this year when 1.7 million people signed a petition against road user charging, which was subsequently ignored.

Cameron is now suggesting that a certain number of signatures to an e-petition should automatically trigger a debate in parliament on the issue, followed by a vote. If this proposal were introduced, it would hard-wire e-democracy into Britain's constitution.

What benefit might result from this?

Cameron argues that it would show the public "what their elected representatives actually think about the issues that matter to them". The hope is that it would re-energise parliament, and lead people to take more interest in their elected chamber. The idea is a symptom of widespread anxiety that politics needs to adapt to the interests and habits of the "MySpace generation", whatever that might be.

The risks involved in the plan are significant, however, and are almost certain to mean that it never becomes anything more than a cheap piece of "blue sky thinking". These are both practical and philosophical in their nature.

Various problems suggest themselves immediately.

The largest and most obvious is that which always accompanies populist models of democratic reform: what happens when it becomes captured by the mob or the well-organised special interest group? A tabloid-led campaign to dissolve the legal rights of a certain minority – paedophiles, for instance – is one unpleasant prospect. But organised interests, such as those rooted in religious networks, could also have a disproportionate impact.

This is an issue that has concerned political theorists for hundreds of years, especially those who drafted the American constitution. But an e-democracy innovation such as Cameron's also introduces questions that are distinct to the digital age.

Firstly, it is unclear precisely how such a system would be designed. How many signatures would be needed in order to trigger a parliamentary debate? A Conservative Party spokesperson said this hadn't yet been decided, but quite how the figure will be calculated is anyone's guess.

Then there is the perennial problem of the system being hacked and gamed by those with sufficient know-how. By granting such constitutional weight to a piece of software, the incentive to play with it, both socially and technologically, becomes that much greater.

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