e-democracy is not direct democracy

The e-petition against road use charging in the UK has been in the news as it breaks the 1 million signature mark.

Coverage from The Times is particularly misleading:

An experiment in internet democracy, in which people were invited to place petitions on the No 10 website and vote for them by e-mail, has embarrassed ministers.

Internet democracy means nothing to me. I wonder whether it's fair to call the Number 10 e-petitions system an experiment as all it does is bring online an existing tradition of handing in petitions to the Prime Minister. Claiming that the petitions are voted for by email subtly misrepresents the site making it sound more Fame Academy and less like clipboards in the high-street type petitions. The MySociety team responsible say it better on the e-petitions FAQ:

One of the most popular proposals has been the creation of a 'sign against' mechanism, which would allow users to disagree with petitions. After much discussion, we have decided not to add this function.

The rationale is this: “e-petitions” is designed essentially as a modern equivalent of the traditional petitions presented at the door of No.10. It enables people to put their views to the Prime Minister. It is not intended to be a form of quasi-referendum or unrepresentative opinion poll (professional polls use special techniques to ensure balanced samples). With a “vote against” function, that is what it would effectively become.

Tracking vehicles to charge them is a pretty hare-brained idea unlikely to be implemented successfully by government. It also strikes me as pointless as road use is already charged for through fuel tax. Without delivering green, affordable, reliable transport alternatives first pricing people off the road seem pointless.

Whatever the merits of the petition's case, 1 million signatures do not miraculously have the power to swing policy. They merely record that 1.6% of our population disagree with how the policy was portrayed by those promoting the petition. Of course this is more than most petitions ever receive, yet still it's a tiny proportion of our peoples.

Naturally the government needs to weigh up the political implications of the mobilisation of feeling those signatures represent. The e-democracy tools enabled people to sign up to the petition quickly and easily. It would have been much harder to achieve so many signatures offline. In fact, rightly or wrongly, I would wager that the government would see more weight in 1 million signatures collected traditionally than online.

Part of the problem lies in expectations. I saw an email promoting the petition which claimed that the government would be legally forced to drop the policy if 750,000 signatures were received. The petitions are not legally binding in any way at all – the government isn't even obliged to respond to them. But if citizens build up hopes and expectations beyond reality then they are setting themselves up for disappointment and possibly will become less likely to participate in the future.

I would hate a great system like the e-petitions site end up unintentionally switching people off democratic participation. Campaigning organisations need to be responsible about the expectations and hope they express when asking for help. We can't count on that though, so the e-petitions site needs to be clearer that e-democracy isn't direct democracy.