Skip to main content

ePetitions, eDemocracy and ICANN

I had lunch on Friday in London with Ross Ferguson from Hansard’s eDemocracy unit. Ross is doing a very interesting thing: observing the impact and advantages (and disadvantages) of the UK government using new Internet tools in order to promote “eDemocracy”.

He and his team produced a “Digital Dialogues” report last year into this, and a second report is due for publication soon.

There are quite a few ties into the work I’m trying to do with ICANN — basically use the Internet to enable anyone to enter into a process and devise ways in which to make such contributions as valuable as possible. This tends to comprise of several things:

  • Getting quality input – extremely difficult as there is always room for the impassioned individual (or, on occasion, nutter) to swamp an open process; or a focussed group to push things off-course; but most difficult because of the next point…
  • Making the input count – i.e. make it so that whatever input is received has a clear and direct influence on matters. This is extremely tough as people are mostly fearful of these new technologies as they represent radical change. But without a clear impact and thread, people question why they should bother interacting at all – all too understandable.
  • Picking the right tools – and implementing them in the right way, while also making it plain to people how they work and what they will do (and what they will not)

The most high-profile of the online tools introduced in the UK has been the ePetitions software that was added to the prime minister’s Number 10 website.

This became a mini-political scandal when a draft proposal for road charging in the UK saw the website swamped with signatories against the scheme. There were so many signed up – it is estimated 1.8 million – that the media and political opposition had a field day and used the petition to beat Number 10 over the head.

Missing the point

Sadly, this has had the knock-on effect that whenever UK politicians hear about online tools or eDemocracy they now associate it with the ePetition headache. They have, of course, completely missed the point.

The current political mentality views anything that results in a public backtrack as embarassing and damaging. Hence the enormous efforts to control the message every day, and the huge effort consistently put into making a policy U-turn not look like a policy U-turn.

What politicans haven’t grasped yet is the new era of straightforwardness that Internet technologies are forcing on society. Because of the enormous ability to share information that now exists, political parties can now longer expect to control information as they have in the past. You can either rail against this (and ultimately fail), or figure out new ways to deal with the matter.

The right way

What the government should have done when over a million people opposed its draft road charging proposal is thanked them.

“It is clear from the strong opposition to the proposed scheme that we need to revisit draft plans for road charging. We are very grateful to those that went to the trouble to provide their input. Significant government time and resources were due to be expended on putting flesh on the bones of the proposal; time which we will now use to further consult on the issue. We hope that all those that signed the e-petition will work with government to review the proposal. We shall be in contact with all those that signed up in the next few months.”

The point is the ePetitions can be used to act as an early-warning system – and so actually save on the policy U-turns that happen all the time anyway. Plus the process involves people. A more positive outlook needs to be taken: the idea is to create rules and laws that work in society’s best interests. And the best way of guaranteeing that is to involve the best minds on your country.

It also adds to confidence in the government. I signed up for one petition opposing the introduction of ID cards. About six months after I signed up, I received an email from the government (nominally from the prime minister himself) thanking me for signing the petition and outling a clear, if slightly lengthy and dull, government response to the issue.

And even though I am a cynical journalist by trade I have to confess that the fact that someone in Number 10 was tasked with producing a response because of the public input on one issue meant to me as if I had had some democratic input. It felt good.

And, despite the negative aura surrounding this ePetitions issue, its true value has been realised around the country as more and more councils have introduced the same system (check out Bristol’s or Kingston’s).

What has this to do with ICANN?

Paul Twomey (ICANN CEO) asked me a few months ago to try to come up with a system by which approaching issues could be raised or flagged up.

The Internet is a very fast-moving medium and while the current ICANN system of supporting organisations and advisory committees is very useful for co-ordination and arriving at policy decisions, the model isn’t very effective at foreseeing issues and drawing attention to things on the horizon.

As such a system that enables anyone to raise an issue simply and easily – and which can then find the support (or not) or others in the community – could prove enormously useful for ICANN’s future work. I think the ePetitions open-source software is the way to go.

It wouldn’t replace or override any existing systems but what it would do is increase direct interaction with ICANN and provide clear input into the system. Of course, it is inevitable that people will have some fun with it first – lots of petitions dragging up past slights and arguments (my predictions for the top three: At-Large Board elections; US government control; VeriSign and the dotcom contract) – but once that is run through the system, it ought to provide a really useful feedback loop into what is happening with the domain name system. Keep ICANN on the ball.

I have sent an email to the bloke that built the UK government’s ePetitions site (Tom Steinberg) and asked him if he is interested in helping ICANN. We shall see what he says. In the meantime, thoughts and feelings welcome. Is this a good idea? Is ePetitions the right step or is there something you think would work better? Do you have other suggestions for future participation? Please comment below.

The UK government ePetitions site can be found here. The open-source MySociety software used can be seen in all its glory here.


    Domain Name System
    Internationalized Domain Name ,IDN,"IDNs are domain names that include characters used in the local representation of languages that are not written with the twenty-six letters of the basic Latin alphabet ""a-z"". An IDN can contain Latin letters with diacritical marks, as required by many European languages, or may consist of characters from non-Latin scripts such as Arabic or Chinese. Many languages also use other types of digits than the European ""0-9"". The basic Latin alphabet together with the European-Arabic digits are, for the purpose of domain names, termed ""ASCII characters"" (ASCII = American Standard Code for Information Interchange). These are also included in the broader range of ""Unicode characters"" that provides the basis for IDNs. The ""hostname rule"" requires that all domain names of the type under consideration here are stored in the DNS using only the ASCII characters listed above, with the one further addition of the hyphen ""-"". The Unicode form of an IDN therefore requires special encoding before it is entered into the DNS. The following terminology is used when distinguishing between these forms: A domain name consists of a series of ""labels"" (separated by ""dots""). The ASCII form of an IDN label is termed an ""A-label"". All operations defined in the DNS protocol use A-labels exclusively. The Unicode form, which a user expects to be displayed, is termed a ""U-label"". The difference may be illustrated with the Hindi word for ""test"" — परीका — appearing here as a U-label would (in the Devanagari script). A special form of ""ASCII compatible encoding"" (abbreviated ACE) is applied to this to produce the corresponding A-label: xn--11b5bs1di. A domain name that only includes ASCII letters, digits, and hyphens is termed an ""LDH label"". Although the definitions of A-labels and LDH-labels overlap, a name consisting exclusively of LDH labels, such as"""" is not an IDN."