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Are Facebook Groups the New (and Improved) Online Petitions?

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

There was a time when online petitions were pretty common, but they never were that effective at actually lobbying government, mainly because there’s no easy way to validate signatures. The concept was ported straight from the analog world to the digital, but it’s interesting to see how government lobbying has evolved online. The Ontario government recently backed down from proposed restrictions on young drivers in the face of a significant backlash, which included a Facebook group that gathered over 150,000 members. The Premier, Dalton McGuinty, mused about conducting consultations through Facebook and, though that never materialized, the group was cited as one of the major indications that the government had “stepped in it.” Earlier this year, another Facebook group, Fair Copyright for Canada, had caught the attention of the national parliament in Canada.

What is it that Facebook groups have that online petitions don’t? First of all, 150,000 members in a Facebook group is not the equivalent of 150,000 signatures on a (real) petition. A portion of this group’s members are probably not even from Ontario (though at least Facebook provides some assurance that most members are real individual people). But, in the same way that 150,000 signatures isn’t the same as 150,000 people at a rally outside the legislature, you take the context into account. It’s a pretty significant number for getting a sense of a public reaction — the government definitely hit a nerve here. A Facebook group also contains associated debate and discussion, links to other efforts (websites, YouTube videos, etc.) and a means for members to coordinate further efforts online and offline. It’s more about organizing protest efforts than simply presenting a list of names.

Obviously, there are other relevant services besides Facebook (and there are lots of silly Facebook groups), but the Facebook example serves as an interesting illustration of how this sort of political activism has evolved from the digital attempt at petitions to a more involved hub of activity. In Canada, we see examples of politicians now beginning to pay attention, but to get involved — like McGuinty suggested through consultations and like the Obama team has demonstrated through a campaign — would take things to another level.

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Ontario Government Considers Facebook Consultation

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

The Ontario Premier says he wants to engage young people in dialogue on Facebook (via Michael Geist) over protests against proposed restrictions on young drivers. The strict, zero-tolerance proposals have caused many young people to speak out on Facebook, and one protest group now has over 140,000 members. The Premier has responded publicly, “I think we need to find a way to get on Facebook… I think we need to find a way to engage in a dialogue in a social network where they are,” noting that most young people won’t come to the traditional legislative meetings. There’s one snag though — government computers currently block Facebook.

This isn’t the first time a Facebook group has caught the attention of Canadian politicians (it’s also not the first time this Ontario government has proposed controversial driving laws). Over the past year, a Facebook group, created by Geist, protesting proposed copyright legislation, was mentioned repeatedly by the opposition in federal parliament. This time, the government itself is bringing an online protest to attention. The idea of Facebook consultations drew some criticism in the comments on Geist’s post — why should the government conduct its business on a proprietary, privately owned silo? But Geist isn’t suggesting that the government rely on Facebook or any one service, just that they could make use of services that people are already using. Facebook is especially relevant for legislation affecting young voters. In an earlier column, Geist notes that it takes more than just an “if you build it, they will come” approach. Governments could broaden their online consultation strategies to include a presence on social networks where active dialogue is already taking place. In this particular case, it’s still a bit too early to tell if this is just talk or if the government is serious about experimenting. A good first step might be to reconsider that Facebook ban.

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