An online petition (or Internet petition, or e-petition) is a form of petition which is signed online, usually through a form on a website. Visitors to the online petition sign the petition by adding their details such as name and email address. Typically, after there are enough signatories, the resulting letter may be delivered to the subject of the petition, usually via e-mail. The online petition may also deliver an email to the target of the petition each time the petition is signed.
The format makes it easy for people to make a petition at any time. Several websites allow anyone with computer access to make one to protest any cause, such as stopping construction or closure of a store. Because petitions are easy to set up, the site can attract frivolous causes, or jokes framed in the ostensible form of a petition.
Online petitions may be abused if signers don't use real names, thus undermining its legitimacy. Verification, for example via a confirmation e-mail can prevent padding a petition with false names and e-mails. Many petition sites now have safeguards to match real world processes; such as local governments requiring protest groups to present petition signatures, plus their printed name, and a way to verify the signature (either with a phone number or identification number via a driver's license or a passport) to ensure that the signature is legitimate and not falsified by the protestors.
There are now several major web initiatives featuring online petitions, for example Change.org, Avaaz.org, and 38 Degrees. These are growing in popularity and ability to achieve political impact. The Economist commented that Avaaz has had "some spectacular successes", but raises questions about what objective measures can be used to assess "the reach of a global e-protest movement". Recently, several petitions on Change.org have been attributed to the reversal of a United Airlines Dog Policy.
Some legitimate non-governmental organizations (NGOs) shun online petitions. Reasons include the paucity of examples of this form of petition achieving its objective. Critics frequently cite it as an example of slacktivism.
In February 2007 an online petition against road pricing and car tracking on the UK Prime Minister's own website attracted over 1.8 million e-signatures from a population of 60 million people. The site was official but experimental at the time. Shocked government ministers were unable to backtrack on the site's existence in the face of national news coverage of the phenomenon. The incident has demonstrated both the potential and pitfalls of online e-Government petitions.
A similar form of petition is the e-mail petition. This petition may be a simple chain letter, requesting that its users forward them to a large number of people in order to meet a goal or to attain a falsely promised reward. Other times the usage will contain a form to be printed and filled out, or a link to an offsite online petition which the recipient can sign. Usually, the e-mail petition focuses on a specific cause that is meant to cause outrage or ire, centering on a timely political or cultural topic. E-mail petitions were among the earliest attempts to garner attention to a cause from an online audience.
The first known successful online petition was written during the summer of 1998. This was a petition to the New York Mets with the goal of re-signing catcher Mike Piazza as a free agent. Piazza had been obtained by the Mets earlier in the season and was eligible for free agency for the 1999 season. The petition was publicized through a Geocities website, various newsgroups and emails, garnering 10,316 signatures. The petition was sent to Mike Piazza, his agents, Mets ownership and general manager Mike Phillips.
A digitized copy of the petition, documentation of the petition through news articles, and a sound file of Mike Phillips announcing Piazza's signing for seven years along with his acknowledgment of the petition are available in the research files of the A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
With the rise of the World Wide Web as a platform for commerce, activism and discussion, an opportunity to garner attention for various social causes was perceived by various players, resulting in a more formalized structure for online petitions; one of the first web-based petition hosts, PetitionOnline, was founded in 1999, with others such as GoPetition (founded in 2000), thePetitionSite.com, iPetitions, and others being established in the years since. Petition hosts served as accessible external locations for the creation of a wide variety of petitions for free by users, providing easier interfaces for such petitions in comparison to the previous e-mail petitions and informal web forum-based petitions. However, petition hosts were criticized for their lax requirements from users who created or signed such petitions: petitions were often only signed with false or anonymous nomenclatures, and often resulted in disorganized side commentary between signers of the same petition.
The rise of online social networking in the later 2000s, however, resulted in both an increase of Internet petition integration into social networks and an increase of visibility for such petitions; Facebook, Change.org, Care2, Avaaz.org, SumOfUs, GoPetition and other sites serve as examples of the integration of Internet petitions as a form of social media and user-generated content. Such networks may have proven to be more fertile ground for the creation of, signing of and response to online petitions, as such networks generally lack the heightened level of anonymity associated with the earlier dedicated petition hosts.
The UK government e-petitions system was suspended in April 2010 but then reopened in a new guise in August 2011, with time allocated for parliamentary debate a possibility for petitions attracting more than 100,000 signatures.
Some parliaments, government agencies and officials, such as The Scottish Parliament with the e-Petitioner system (from 1999), the Queensland Parliament in Australia, German Bundestag (from 2005), Cabinet of ministers of Ukraine (from 2016) and Bristol City Council in the U.K have adopted electronic petitioning systems as a way to display a commitment to their constituents and provide greater accessibility into government operations.
In the UK, the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 requires all principal authorities to provide a facility for people to submit petitions electronically. This requirement came into force on 15 December 2010.
The US government created We The People in 2011 as a platform for creating and signing petitions on the White House web server. The White House originally required petitions to gather 5,000 signatures within 30 days, after which time policy officials in the administration would review the petition and issue an official response. Within two weeks of its launch, the threshold was raised to 25,000 signatures. Further changes in 2013 raised the threshold to 100,000 signatures.
As is the case with public perceptions of slacktivism, Internet petitions are both a popular resort of web-based activism and a target of criticism from those who feel that such petitions are often disregarded by their targets because of the anonymity of petition signers; Snopes.com, for example, sides against the usage of Internet petitions as a method of activism. On the other hand, the creators of petition hosts, such as Randy Paynter of Care2 and thePetitionSite.com, have defended web-based petitions as being more feasible, credible and effective than e-mail petitions, claiming they are not fairly judged as a method of activism by their critics. Since then, Snopes.com has removed the text about the inefficacy of Internet petitions.
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