Online Petitions: A Victory For Disobedient Citizens?


By Ann-Kristin Welsing and Jelena Gregorius

During the World Forum for Democracy which takes place in Strasbourg this week (27th – 29th of November), online petitions and campaigning are a focus of discussion. Will such petitions and campaigns, which currently get much attention by internet users online, replace our current democratic systems? With such questions in mind we met Dmitry Dedov, who is a Russian judge at the European Court of Human Rights and one of the discussants during the World Forum.

Dmitry Dedov joined the forum as he is very excited about the ways how the new communication tools, raised by the information society, can have an influence on how we can change our society. He is convinced that those tools enable us to “exchange ideas” and to “participate” in democratic processes more efficiently.

Radical change or only slight adaption needed?portrait des juges de la CEDH

But does that mean that our “old” democratic institutions are in need of drastic change? Dmitry Dedov says “No”. Although many people believe that the current system is in crisis, he argues that what the current system needs is to adapt to the developments existing on the societal level. Developments are going on all the time and therefore also the system should develop “constantly towards a more efficient system”. “Through the influence of electronic democracy”, Dmitry Dedov explains, “traditional institutions would be more transparent and more reasonable in making decisions”. According to him, this should happen on both sites: not only should citizens be able to propose some ideas, but members of the parliament should also use those tools to test and verify their views.

“Development and improvement of the system is necessary but not only because the current system is in crisis but because of the new opportunities. Information society provides us more freedom and more opportunities and we should use them. That would be very good for all of us.”

The Russian Public Initiative

The Russian Public Initiative is one example of governmental efforts to introduce online petitions and campaigning as democratic tools for decision making. Introduced on 27 August 2012, the initiative allows citizens can hand in law proposals and when those receive more than 100,000 votes, the Russian parliament has to take it into consideration.When asking Dmitry Dedov about an evaluation of this initiative, he answers that at the moment “people on both sides feel that it is the time to re-organize the system”. In his eyes, the initiative can be seen as a reaction by the Russian government to the current demonstrations which become more and more “unfriendly” towards the existing government.

“People claimed for more influence and for more power and want to participate in making decisions”

Real “victory” for the protesters or only token concession by the government?

We want to throw in the term “slacktivism” here, a term coined by Evgeny Morozov. He argues that in the digital age actual participation is declining because of the ease to press a button and “change the world” (“To save everything, click here”). With regard to the growth in e-democracy tools such as the Russian Public Initiative, Morozov argues that Internet use does not always mean deliberation and democracy for the population. Governments can also use those tools for, what he calls, “authoritarian deliberation”. First, governments can generate useful information about their citizens through blogs, wikis, etc. and find out who is connected to whom. Second, politicians can share the blames for failed policies with the public saying “we asked you and you did not disagree”. Third and last, e-democracy tools can help repressive governments to increase their legitimacy both nationally and internationally.

According to Dmitry Dedov, the Russian government was already planning such a platform even before the protests emerged. Generally, the Russian government’s intentions will remain unclear, although there might be some truth in Morozov’s words. Nevertheless, when governments use such platforms, it is important that citizens are educated and know how to write a well-argued and valid proposal. Otherwise, citizens are not able to make use of it and such initiatives will not provide extra value and miss the target.


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