White House e-Petitions Work More Often Than You'd Think

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Last Friday, I marveled at the news that an e-petition to the White House had actually created a policy change

I asked if anyone knew of another example where an e-petition had led to actual results. Well, ask and ye shall receive. It turns out there's a few. Writer Alex Howard jumped into the comments of the original piece with some examples. I'm reprinting his comment below here. (Edited it slightly to add embedded links, which our comment system forbids) 

I've been following White House epetition since launch, 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.

As someone whose knee-jerk reaction toward e-petitions is cynicism, I find stories about the system working delightful and surprising. It's also particularly heartening that the nerdy silliness of that Death Star petition ended up raising the profile of online petitions. Dumb jokes = good for democracy!