Signed and delivered

Online petitions could be just the way to revitalise our democracy

It has been nearly a year since 1.8 million people signed an e-petition opposing the government's plan to ease traffic congestion in the UK by introducing a road-pricing policy. The incident might be the one time No 10's experiment with online petitioning poked its head above the specialist press, but the road-pricing petition was by no means the only one. Since the launch of the Prime Minister's petition website, tens of thousands of e-petitions have been started, with roughly four million unique email addresses registered to sign them.

Though not all these emails can be expected to belong to UK citizens (for such is the pseudonymous nature of the internet), the figures still suggest that a significant proportion of the UK population has used the site to engage directly with the PM.

The online experiment raised a number of questions, chief of which is: "What difference do petitions make?" Although the road-pricing petition might have led to a ministerial U-turn on the issue in autumn, the grass-roots uprising was not the clear shot to the head such a zombie policy needed: a 15 January Policy Exchange report on congestion resurrected the proposal, to whoops of delight from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. It's not clear if the smaller petitions caused that much soul-searching at No 10, either. My experience was that the responses were, at best, a condescending restatement of the policy I was petitioning against. But perhaps that says something about my political views.

This month and next, the House of Commons procedure committee is consulting with the public on whether to extend the conventional process of petitioning parliament online. The House of Commons is perhaps a more relevant target for e-petitions than No 10, if simply because the politicians who inhabit it are not quite so bound to toe the party line. Petitioning ordinary MPs with our views might not suit our aspirations to join in, albeit virtually, in the sexy-sounding sofa government us plebs hear so much about, but it feels slightly more like representative democracy and could, therefore, be expected to work better. It could also bring down barriers between MPs and those whom they represent. Petitioners used to "pray" parliament; now they "request", and soon they will simply "ping".

But if last year's HM Revenue and Customs data debacle has taught us anything, it is that government in the digital age has its upsides and its downsides.

Usually, anyone signing a petition to parliament needs to provide a name and address. Coupled with an on-the-record political view, such details stored digitally, centrally, would be a boon to direct marketers and fraudsters. As pointed out by the always excellent SpyBlog, parliament would therefore need not only to assure would-be petitioners that their data was safe, but also to put in place technical measures to match.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer