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Modern Technology Changes Art of Protest - 2003-03-11

Americans are deeply divided over the prospect of going to war with Iraq. The most recent opinion polls suggest 59 percent are in favor of an invasion. But one-quarter of those people are reluctant to start a war without U.N. support, and 37 percent of Americans are opposed to war outright. All this disagreement has resulted in an increased number of petitions, many of them circulating on the internet. VOA's Maura Farrelly reports on one way modern technology has changed the art of protest.

It's hard to say when or where the world's first signature petition was circulated, but in general, historians believe two things had to happen before the petition could truly become an effective form of protest. First, common people had to become literate, and then they had to believe they had a right to tell their government what to do. For that reason, the modern-day petition is usually traced to the 18th century, the so-called 'Enlightenment' period in the West. But it wasn't until the 19th century that the petition really came of age. It was then that the first blockbuster petitions, gathering more than a million signatures each, were circulated throughout England. And now, says Kevin Matthews, director of the website, the petition has come of age again.

"The real strength of on-line petitioning comes, of course, from the characteristics of the Internet. Word about a petition can be communicated quickly. People can sign it quickly wherever they have computer access. In addition, some issues really are international, so the response to people's ideas and feelings can happen so much more quickly than on a paper petition," Mr. Matthews said.

And Mr. Matthews said that in an increasing number of nations - including the United States, Japan, and the countries of the European Union - a digital signature enjoys the same legal recognition traditional signatures enjoy. Kevin Matthew's website is one of several "clearing houses" for on-line petitions. People can post their grievances there for free, and the website is regulated largely by software that filters out obscene language and alerts administrators whenever multiple signatures have been posted from the same server. This is an attempt to avoid fraud and make it difficult for anyone to sabotage a petition. The website is nearly self-sustaining, but every now and then, Kevin Matthews and his colleagues do have to take a look at the petitions, to make sure no one's advocating violence. They don't get paid to do this, but Mr. Matthews says there are other rewards.

"We get really excited about the passion that people have. That's not necessarily why we started PetitionOnline in the first place, which was sort of a pure, abstract idea about grassroots democracy on the web. But what keeps us putting our efforts into this public service that we tend to kind of lose money on, on a month-to-month, basis is the connection that it makes for people around the world," Mr. Matthews said.

Anyone can post a petition on the site. There are calls for suicide bombing to be declared a "crime against humanity" and campaigns for the diplomatic recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state. Not all of the petitions are quite so serious. So far, more than 500 people have signed one calling for the 2003 Cricket World Cup to be broadcast live in the United States. It's up to the person who created each petition to print it out and make sure it gets delivered. But sometimes, that isn't even necessary, according to Cindy Crandelmere, who posted a petition earlier this year, calling for a local newspaper to stop printing the names of rape victims. Ms. Crandelmere said the newspaper's publisher saw the petition on the web before she'd had a chance to deliver it.

"It was definitely effective because the publisher called my daughter and her co-workers into his office and told them that he had changed his mind about publishing the names. He had a copy of the petition in his hands when he said so," Ms. Crandelmere said.

But in order for a petition to be effective, said Kevin Matthews, it doesn't necessarily have to accomplish its stated goal. "Sometimes just the act of joining your voices together gives people the support that they need to maintain their integrity, to keep working on the things that they care about. So a petition can work in other ways that are maybe a little subtler," Mr. Matthews said.

And for that reason, Kevin Matthews says he considers every one of the more than 50,000 petitions posted on since 1999 to be a success.