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Hasselhoff, paedophiles, and a digital Animal Farm

Why David Cameron's e-petitions scheme needs rebooting

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Once MPs' diaries are dictated by the whims of a message board, an automated e-signatures generator or mischievous online campaign to rig the system (such as the recent one to get an old David Hasselhoff song to number one in the UK charts) could not be far behind. The notion of MPs being compelled to debate and vote on a geek in-joke may be rather entertaining, but that's precisely why it will never happen.

This touches on a more profound issue. E-democracy is often more inviting, accessible, and light-hearted than constitutional democracy, and allows for a more diverse range of views. The response of those such as Cameron is – fine, so let's shift power away from the slow, homogeneous, analogue model, towards the flexible, cosmopolitan, digital one.

But this misses a rather awkward fact.

E-democracy is inviting, accessible, and light-hearted because it carries no constitutional weight, and not in spite of that. To many, the e-petitions website is a welcome relief from the seriousness of parliamentary democracy. It is a place where one can crack jokes about Homer Simpson, let off steam about daily frustrations, air political opinions that are not acceptable in mainstream public debate.

By proposing to merge the playful world of e-democracy with the humourless world of constitutional democracy, Cameron invites one of two outcomes. Either parliament receives an injection of unaccountable anarchy as just suggested, or the online forum must lose some of its inconsequential lightness.

Which is it to be? Some might hope that by bestowing power upon an online forum, that this might spawn responsibility with it and e-citizens would cherish their new-found constitutional rights. This would be quite a gamble.

But if it did work, then e-petitions users would suffer a new problem, similar to that experienced by the pigs at the end of George Orwell's Animal Farm: they would gradually become indistinguishable from their old masters. If the e-petitions site were a recognised route into parliament, there is no reason why it would remain different from other routes, that is, dominated by organised lobbying, NGOs, and business. ®

William Davies is a sociologist and policy analyst. His weblog is at Potlatch.

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