We have heard quite a bit about how “100,000 people have signed a White House petition!” which prompts action from the White House on a particular issue. The implication is that the White House petition was established by an American and the response to it is reflective of the will of the people. Meaning the American people, because it’s the American President who is being called on. Democracy in action, right?
This emphasis on “American” is not jingoism on our part–it’s the clear implication of the petition process and is the unstated assumption of everyone discussing these petitions, and particularly of the supporters of the issue being “voted on”. For example, Mr. Derek Khanna says he started a White House petition to “unlock” cell phones–got to love those “moral panic” narratives–and then the White House says they will support US legislation and presto chango Senator Wyden (remember him from IRFA?) and Rep. Eshoo (from Palo Alto, home to…guess who) have introduced “unlocking” legislation to make it so. Very symmetrical. Very. Almost like they planned it that way.
But how did this all start? A White House petition that was signed by 100,000 “people”. So you would have thought that there would be some controls at the White House petition site to make sure that all this activity didn’t get started based on a false assumption–that someone had checked to see if the signers of the petition were in fact the citizens over whom the legislation will prevail.
The UK Solution
We are not the only ones who have these “e-petitions”–the UK does, too–with a few differences explained on Her Majesty’s Government’s website:
What are e-petitions?
e-petitions are an easy, personal way for you to influence government and Parliament in the UK. You can create an e-petition about anything that the government is responsible for and if it gets at least 100,000 signatures, it will be considered for debate in the House of Commons. You can find more information about how the House of Commons deals with e-petitions on the Backbench Business Committee website This link opens in a new window
So you think, “Great, I’d like to get in on that!” Maybe you can get the House of Commons to debate making July 4th a national holiday in the UK! So you sign up to sign an ePetition to make the UK government do back flips on your command (and 100,000 of your favorite sock puppets). Ah, not so fast. The Brits did run an empire, after all. You are confronted with this sign in:
So you must be a British citizen or resident in order to sign the e-Petitions.
That actually makes sense, doesn’t it? If a government is going to establish a petition method, shouldn’t it be limited to the people who are going to have to live under the laws it might be used to create? We were also struck by the far, far lower vote tallies in the active UK petitions compared to the US. Could there be a connection?
This all makes sense to us and also, more importantly, to the UK government. If US residents or citizens want to express their views about something in the UK, there are plenty of casual polls they can game…sorry…vote in. They don’t need access to the right to petition the UK government. Seems like we fought a war about that once.
The White House Petition
So having established that the UK government sensibly blocks (or at least tries to block) non-residents and non-citizens from petitioning the UK government, we expected to find the same controls present in the White House petition site. Not at all.
You do have to sign up for an account and give your email and name–a zip code is optional. So just as a test, we signed up for an account and instead of giving a US zip code, gave the UK postal code for the Houses of Parliament in London. That’ll surely get us rejected by the White House, right? The UK uses letters and numbers, not related in any way to a zip code.
So here’s the petition we tried to sign up for: Designate May 20th as Macho Man Randy Savage Day
So when you try to sign up, you are told to put in name and email and the optional zip code.
We found this incredible, so asked friends in the UK and in Canada to try to sign up to vote for the Macho Man, fully expecting that their IP addresses would be geoblocked. Nope–both were able to sign up and both were able to vote for Randy Savage and used UK and Canadian postal codes to do so.
So who signed Mr. Khanna’s petition?