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.
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.