An Online White House Petition Actually Worked!?

Friday, December 13, 2013 - 03:20 PM

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks on the Affordable Care Act in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on November 14, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (ANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty)

NPR reported yesterday on a deal between the FCC and cell phone companies that will continue to allow consumers to legally unlock their cellphones. Unlocking had been legal, then briefly illegal, and now it's ok again. 

But to me, the surprising part of the story was the second graf: 

The deal came in the wake of a consumer rebellion over the policy of locking cellphones to a carrier. A petition that garnered more than 114,000 signatures landed at the White House, and the Obama administration sided with the petitioners.

The Obama administration launched their online petition system in 2011 and promised that petitions that breached a certain threshold of signatures would get an official White House response. But besides those responses, I couldn't find another example where one of these petitions was actually cited as the reason for a policy change. I think this is a first. Can anybody think of another? 


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Comments [3]

Alexander Howard from Washington, DC

Hey, PJ.

I've been following White House epetition since launche, more than 2 years ago.

Prior to the 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:

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 now cell phone unlocking.

A petition for the administration to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act just passed the 100,000 signature threshold this week, requiring a response:

It will join a dozen or so others that have passed the threshold, some of which have lingered unanswered for over a year.

Such tardiness of response might lead people to believe that the administration is putting off public responses to petitions it finds politically inconvenient, like the one to pardon Edward Snowden.

Even if that's the case, however, if this trend continues, critics may find it harder to hold the position that these White House epetitions are a useless exercise in democracy theater.

Dec. 13 2013 06:22 PM
Drew Youngblood from Bellville, Texas

Thought they were ridiculous. Signed every one that I agreed with. Received response on gluten free labeling changes and Protecting Military Servicemembers from Religious Discrimination and Preserving Freedom of Religious Expression. I'd be happy to forward the response to you if tell me where to send and what you want in the subject line.

Dec. 13 2013 05:27 PM
Dan B from Curmudgeonville, NY

The most famous of these White House petition and response posts is the petition to fund a Death Star by 2016. We have the government we deserve.

Dec. 13 2013 03:38 PM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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