12 Recommendations in-depth: #7 Allow the collection of email addresses within the ECI support form and permit ECI organisers to contact signatories.

2015-04-23 News

This is the third in a series of articles taking an in-depth look at each of The ECI Campaign’s 12 recommendations for building “An ECI That Works!” We’re starting with issues that need explanation and/or visibility, not addressing them in numerical order.

#7 Allow the collection of email addresses within the ECI support form and permit ECI organisers to contact signatories.

The ECI has been described as a 21st century tool of digital and participatory democracy. Unfortunately, one thing is preventing it from actually being one: email addresses. Specifically, email addresses of citizens who sign an ECI cannot be collected within the official ECI support form and then shared with that ECI’s organisers.

Citizens can’t be kept informed of the progress of an ECI they sign, invited to join the ECI’s public hearing, informed of the Commission’s response or engaged in the ECI’s topic via other digital methods like web forums and online town halls – unless ECI organisers have their email addresses. This is the #1 barrier preventing the ECI from leading to the two-way digital dialogue between citizens and EU institutions that EU leaders say they want.

We therefore recommend that ECI Regulation 211/2011 and its related technical Regulation 1179/2011 be amended, and the main ECI support form and related databases in the online signature collection system (OCS) be redesigned, so that citizens who sign an ECI may consent to share their email address, name and nationality with that ECI’s organisers.

Despite its vital importance, the issue of email addresses has gotten lost in general calls to “improve the OCS”. Due to confusion between technical possibilities and legal data protection requirements, it’s also been wrongly dismissed by some as illegal.

Technically, it is possible to create an ECI support form that looks to citizens as if it’s a single website. However, different parts of that form can be connected to separate databases — each governed by different legal rules. The personal data citizens provide to support an ECI can (and must) be kept in a secure database that campaigns cannot use and must destroy after signature verification. However, if the citizen supporting an ECI consents, a copy of their name, email address and nationality could be kept in a different database owned by the ECI organiser and used to keep them informed, as well as invite them to continue to engage in the ECI’s topic.

ECI campaigns have tried various ways to collect their supporters’ email addresses outside of the main ECI support form. All require multiple clicks, different websites and/or inputting an email address twice. The resulting citizen confusion has led ECIs to lose signatures, email addresses or both. Tellingly, the ECI Right2Water collected 1.8 million signatures, but only a paltry 20,000 email addresses. Its hearing was web-streamed and heavily discussed in social media. But 99% of its supporters had no idea this was even happening!

If the European Union is ever to have a true “public space” where citizens can debate policy, part of it must be digital. The ECI provides a golden opportunity to e-participation specialists to begin to build it. But they can’t do anything without email addresses.