I’ve got a rough and ready rule for assessing whether a website is kosher or not. Is there an easily accessible “About” page. It’s not infallible, but if that basic test isn’t passed I get a bit suspicious.
At yesterday’s Spark the Change conference there was a presentation from a representative from the US-based “platform for change” (read “petition engine”), change.org. This service provides people with the means to run online petitions about subjects dear to their hearts, and is apparently impacting how policy-makers in this country are making decisions.
And so to Wikipedia. The plot thickens. Not only is change.org a private, for-profit organisation. It had also received criticism for using a .org domain name (usually, although not compulsorily, associated with not-for-profit organisations). I can imagine that that’s a distinction that passes many by, and also wouldn’t be surprised if the domain was chosen because change.com had already been bagged.
A bit more searching revealed a $15M investment from Omidyar Networks last year, and some claims from the site’s founders that all profits will get ploughed back into the business. Call me naïve, but Silicon Valley investors don’t make $15M investments in things that aren’t likely to somehow turn them a profit. A donation, maybe, but not an investment.
All of this troubles me at two levels.
Firstly that with aims from change.org to increase functionality to allow policy makers to become more active participants rather than victims of this service, this feels strongly like the covert privatisation of our political processes by an American corporation. An organisation that is unaccountable and doesn’t even easily disclose how or why it operates to its users, but does manipulate information in the guise of “personalisation”. If people are getting hot under the collar about Facebook’s recent emotions experiments, we should be livid about an organisation manipulating political discourse through opaque algorithms.
But I have deeper issues with the online petition model. Online petitions aren’t enough hard work – the analogy with pen and paper petitions of old are ridiculous. Back when I was 12, the school I attended was threatened with closure. Parents and teachers became activists, and over a number of weeks we collected thousands of names, addresses and signatures with huge effort which were eventually presented to the Secretary of State. The effort involved showed real commitment.
An online petition is an exercise in link bait. Odious organisations like Isis and Britain First have shown how easy it is to use clever social media approaches to give an illusion of support to extreme causes. Put enough pictures of puppies on the networks and you’ll be able to get numbers of people to sign anything, especially when “sign” means just a click on a webpage. That’s not democracy.
Policy makers, for the most part, don’t understand what is going on. Changes to our democratic processes are going to happen. But we should be worried when they are being made by less-than-open and unaccountable commercial organisations.