New winds of digital democracy
Internet petitions range from calls for more health care resources to getting rid of crusts in packaged sliced bread
By Miska Rantanen
Internet-based petitions in Finland are bringing record numbers of virtual signatures.
The most conspicuous project is that of documentary filmmaker and nurse Tarja Tallqvist calling for higher pay for nurses and family care-givers, and for an increase in the number of nursing positions at hospitals. The petition, with nearly 130,000 signatures, was submitted to Minister of Social Services Liisa Hyssälä in late April. The appeal did not bring the desired result, so Tallqvist decided to raise the stakes. Now she is aiming for a million names by the autumn.
She is not the only one to be collecting signatures.
The Nouse jo ("Up, already") movement, which calls for higher student grants, will have soon have collected the signatures of 100,000 people.
Tens of thousands of signatures have been collected on a petition on behalf of tougher sentences for violations of animal protection laws, and against the cancellation of the operating licence of the radio station Sävelradio.
The Internet petition craze has been spurred by the response to an appeal against the celebrity gossip magazine Seitsemän päivää ("Seven Days"), for its publication of a photograph of Tomi Putaansuu, the lead singer of the heavy metal rock band Lordi. The magazine had ignored a request by Putaansuu that his unmasked face not be shown in public.
In three days the petition calling for a boycott of the magazine got 200,000 signatures. Advertisers took fright, and finally Seitsemän päivää was persuaded to produce acontrite apology.
Although the issue was not the most serious in the world, Internet-based civic action took a giant leap forward with the Lordi case. For the first time, concrete results were achieved in Finland with the help of an Internet petition.
Faith in the power of petitions was shaken somewhat about two years ago when 40,000 signatures gathered to preserve the railway warehouses in Helsinki were brushed aside by the city's decision-making bodies. The Lordi campaign changed the rules, and new Internet petitions have been popping up in the weeks that followed.
The greatest amount of support has been received by petitions on real issues, such as a Petition to Preserve Finnish Infantry Landmines (4,650 signatures), and No Attack on Iran (4,038). Some of the appeals have been made with tongue in cheek, such as No Crusts in Packages of Sliced Bread (1,723) or Petitions Should be Banned, which found support from 22 signatories.
Internet petitions are not an invention of the past few months alone.
Names have been collected on petitions for causes considered good and worthy as long as the Internet has been in existence. It is just that they have not been taken very seriously up to now. Stumbling blocks include the small number of signatories, and the doubts about the reliability of the lists of names.
The critics forget that subterfuge has always been possible when drawing up any kinds of petitions. According to urban legends, names on paper petitions in the 1970s were collected where necessary from telephone books and tombstones.
Petitions do not legally commit decision-makers to do anything, but skilful politicians do take them into consideration. An aloof attitude can have negative consequences in the next elections.
In the coming months people will be waiting in eager anticipation to see how digital democracy will bite on the EU level.
Swedish MEP Celia Malmström has launched an Internet petition demanding that the European Parliament should convene in only one city - Brussels.
Currently the parliament shuttles between Brussels and Strasbourg at a cost of an annual EUR 200 million. The practice has been criticised for several years.
In just over a month the petition, which can be found at www.oneseat.eu, has brought more than 600,000 signatures.
First, the Finns saved the face of Mr. Lordi. Perhaps next the European Parliament's costly back-and-forth travel ritual might be brought to a timely end.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 18.6.2006
Previously in HS International Edition:
Lordi fans furious at "outing" by gossip magazine (26.5.2006)
Snopes.com questions effectiveness of online petitions
MISKA RANTANEN / Helsingin Sanomat