Monday, February 28, 2011

S.B. 55 is still on hold and nobody knows why except its sponsor, who isn’t saying

S.B. 55, now pending in the Utah State Senate, “requires a governmental agency to adopt a policy concerning electronic signatures before the governmental agency may accept an electronic signature.” It is widely understood to represent an effort by the state’s Lieutenant Governor, Greg Bell, to reverse last year’s Utah Supreme Court decision in Anderson v. Bell that required his office to accept electronic signatures on independent gubernatorial candidate Farley Anderson’s ballot access petition. It is also understood to be intended to preempt the possibility of letting people in Utah electronically sign initiative or referendum petitions.

While most of the bills pending a few days ago on the Utah Senate’s Second Reading Calendar have been considered by that body, S.B. 55 remains, as it has been for several days, “circled,” or put on hold, as of 4:00 pm Mountain Standard Time on February 28th. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking down for consideration of the bill. After March 2nd, there are no more committee hearings, so if S.B. 55 does pass the Senate, it may have to be taken directly to the House floor without consideration in a House committee. The legislature itself is set to adjourn on March 10th. If the bill is still circled then, it will die, unpassed.

The bill’s Senate sponsor, Senator Stephen Urquhart, hasn’t said why the bill is circled or how long it will stay in that status. The bill’s sponsor in the Utah House of Representatives, Bradley Daw, said through a spokesperson that he “has no idea why it’s circled.” He also said that he thought the bill would be “fairly easy to pass in the House.”

Senator Urquhart’s intern, Abby Pike, told Etopia News today that she would ask her boss about the bill, but there’s been no word yet from him or her as this article was posted around 4:00 pm Mountain Standard Time on Monday, February 28th.

Asked for a comment on the bill from Utah Governor Gary Herbert, the governor’s spokesperson said that as “a general position, we can’t comment on bills until they reach the governor’s desk,” due to the fact that until then the bill’s final content is unknown. The spokesperson referred the inquiry to the Lieutenant Governor’s office, which has already stated its intention not to accept electronic signatures if S.B. 55 is passed and has commended Senator Urquhart for “running” this bill through the legislature.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

S.B. 55 is still “circled”; another electronic signature executive weighs in

As of 3:37 pm Mountain Standard Time on Thursday, February 24, 2011, S.B. 55, which would require each state agency in Utah to go through a formal rule-making process before it could accept electronic signatures, is still “circled” on the legislative calendar there, meaning that it is on hold until further notice.

According to Leslie McLean, Manager of Senate Services, “they’re still working on it.” She said she didn’t “know if they’re amending it or substituting it.” She said what would be done with the bill was entirely up to its sponsor, Utah State Senator Stephen Urquhart.

Meanwhile, another leading electronic signature industry executive has commented on this proposed law. Ken Moyle, Chief Legal Officer at DocuSign told Etopia News today that he finds S.B. 55 “disappointing.” He said that passage of that bill into law would “have the effect of holding up electronic transactions in regulated industries in Utah until the secretary of state got around to adopting rules. That runs counter to the whole intent of UETA and ESIGN.”

UETA is the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, currently in place in 47 U.S. states, including Utah. ESIGN is the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, which, according to Wikipedia, is intended “to facilitate the use of electronic records and signatures in interstate and foreign commerce by ensuring the validity and legal effect of contracts entered into electronically.”

He was fulsome in his praise for the Utah Supreme Court’s decision in Anderson v. Bell, which S.B. 55 would overturn, calling it “eloquent” and “brilliant.” He said that “The eloquence is in the way the Court concisely dispelled the myth that a pen and paper document was somehow self-authenticating; the brilliance was in the way the Court interpreted the UETA to require state agencies to demonstrate the need for paper on an exception basis, rather than allowing them to hold up e-commerce until they get around to adopting rules.”

Mr. Moyle was also supportive of efforts in Nebraska to pass LB 566, which would allow Nebraskans to electronically sign initiative, referendum, and recall petitions online, calling it a “positive” development. “They want to affirmatively say that they support ESIGN. That makes sense.” It was, he said, a way of “saying that we really mean it” when it comes to the acceptance of electronic signatures.

Apologizing for the use of what is by now a somewhat hackneyed term, Mr. Moyle referred to the “paradigm shift” involved in the transition to the routine acceptance and use of electronic signatures. He agreed with Thomas Kuhn’s contention in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (published in 1962) that this transition would only fully take place as new people come to power in the institutions undergoing this change.

Moyle said that young people more familiar with new technology coming to fill positions in various sectors of the economy brings about a “tipping point” in the adoption of a new way of looking at things. He said that such a tipping point was now being reached in the financial services sector and that the governmental and judicial sectors “were getting there.”

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Leading e-signature executive endorses Nebraska’s Smart Initiatives bill; sponsor works cautiously to move it forward

Michael Laurie, VP and co-founder of Silanis, a leading electronic signature company, today endorsed the passage of LB 566, Nebraska’s pending Smart Initiatives legislation, which would allow Nebraskans to electronically sign official initiative, referendum, and recall petitions online.

In a prepared statement, Mr. Laurie said:

“We applaud the Nebraska Smart Initiatives Bill as a great potential step toward making collaborative, accessible government a reality in Nebraska. There is no reason that a smart initiative could not succeed – affordable, proven technology is available and citizens are certainly ready to embrace the convenience and cost-cutting benefits of electronic processes.”

For more about the history and development of the Smart Initiatives concept, click here.

Meanwhile, the bill’s author, Nebraska State Senator Paul Schumacher is moving forward cautiously in his efforts to get the bill passed into law.

A hearing on LB 566 is scheduled for March 2nd before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. His goal during this session of the legislature, according to a spokesperson in his office, is “just to get the issue in front of the committee.” State Senator Schumacher won’t be bringing anyone to testify on the bill’s behalf, but welcomes walk-ins who might want to support it. “He’s not soliciting testimony,” the spokesperson said, adding that “he’s just feeling his way through” in educating legislators about the idea of using the Internet to collect electronic signatures on official government petitions, something not yet explicitly authorized in any of the 50 states.

The current session of the unicameral Nebraska legislature runs until June 3rd. According to his spokesperson, Senator Schumacher “may push more during the next session of the legislature,” which will meet in 2012.

Previous Etopia News coverage of the Nebraska Smart Initiatives bill, LB 566, can be found in these three articles:

Nebraska's LB 566 would implement Smart Initiatives in the Cornhusker State

Mixed prospects ahead for LB 566 in committee

Governor of Nebraska has not taken a position on LB 566, Nebraska’s “Smart Initiative” bill

For more about Smart Initiatives in the global context, go to:

A spectre is haunting more than Europe--the spectre of Smart Initiatives

Egypt, Utah, EU: Support for, and opposition to, Internet-mediated efforts to expand democratic governance

S.B. 55 is still “circled”; leading electronic signature executive calls it “a step back for digital government in Utah”

As this article is being posted, at 2:16 pm Mountain Standard Time on Wednesday, February 23, 2011, Utah’s S.B. 55, a bill that would require rule-making by each state agency in that state before it could accept electronic signatures, is still “circled” on the Utah State Senate’s legislative calendar, meaning that it is on hold while its sponsor, Utah State Senator Stephen Urquhart, says he is “working some things out, working some bugs out” of the proposed law.

Meanwhile, Michael Laurie, VP and co-founder of leading electronic signature company Silanis, issued the following statement regarding S.B. 55, which he characterized as “a step back for digital government in Utah at a time when citizens are looking for greater convenience in interacting with government.”

Here’s what Mr. Laurie said:

“The Uniform Electronic Transactions Act is intended to provide a consistent, technology-neutral framework for electronic signatures and records in government and business. While it doesn’t require state agencies to accept e-signatures, it does give electronic signatures the same legal weight as their paper counterparts. Legislating that individual state agencies need to make their own rules related to the acceptance of electronic signatures would be a step back for digital government in Utah at a time when citizens are looking for greater convenience in interacting with government. Any concerns over security and fraud in electronic petitions are unfounded. The reality is that viable technology solutions are available to make the electronic process not only as secure, but more secure than paper.”

Brent Manning, a Utah attorney who argued for the plaintiff in Anderson v. Bell, in which the Utah Supreme Court decided that electronic signatures could be used to qualify an independent gubernatorial candidate for the ballot, today re-iterated to Etopia News his view that S.B. 55 “won’t do what they are trying to accomplish” while it will create new problems.

The Anderson decision, he said, “was cautious and mandated by state law.” He went on to say that “there was nothing wrong with the decision and there’s nothing wrong with accepting electronic signatures.”

“I’m hopeful,” he concluded “that they’ll just abandon the whole thing.”

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

S.B. 55 is “circled” and state Democratic spokesperson calls it “bad law”

Democrats are a beleaguered minority in Utah. They hold seven out of twenty-nine seats in the State Senate and seventeen out of seventy-five in the State House. But they can still make their voice heard on important issues such as S.B. 55, a bill supporters claim will rationalize the state’s electronic signature law and which opponents say will stifle the free exercise of democratic rights in the signing of official state documents electronically.

Todd Taylor, Executive Director of the Utah State Democratic Committee today responded to an inquiry about S.B. 55 from Etopia News with a detailed statement expressing the Democratic Party’s views on this proposed legislation, which was, as this article was being composed, a “circled” bill, meaning that it was on hold for a "second reading" in the Utah State Senate.

According to Leslie McKean, Manager of Senate Services, its sponsor, State Senator Stephen Urquhart, told her that he had had it circled because he “was still working some things out, still working out some bugs.” “At this time,” she said, “he doesn’t know when he’ll uncircle it.” This was at 5:30 pm, Mountain Standard Time, on February 22nd.

Here’s what Mr. Taylor had to say about S.B. 55, on behalf of the Democratic Party of Utah:

“The Utah Legislature is entertaining a provision SB055 Electronic Signatures that could severely limit electronic transactions with the State of Utah. Under the provision, the State of Utah will no longer consider electronic signatures valid unless there has been an agency rule making procedure to allow them.

“As with many things, this issue stems from an election controversy. But it could have unintended consequences for commerce and legal situations far beyond the intended issue by the State Elections Department.

“A little history: In early November 2009, the Utah Democratic Party was approached by the sponsors of more than one citizens’ initiative about the prospect of devising an on-line system to collect petition signatures for these initiatives. Our initial reaction was one of resistance and skepticism. It was quickly overcome.

“It became apparent that there was no impediment in law. It was simply a matter of getting the state election department to acknowledge that the Uniform Electronic Transaction Act was applicable to the election law dealing with initiatives and referenda. It also became apparent that there was no ethical impediment in that we could ensure the validity of the transaction at the same level or better with protection against fraudulent signers as would be the case with the current “in person” process.

“The circulation and collection of petition signatures is not the function of government, but a private function given to the sponsors of the measure. The government’s function is limited to verification and counting to determine if the number collected is sufficient. Electronic signatures make both of these government functions easier and more accurate. The current verification process does not require a comparison of holographic signatures between the petition and the voter registration. It only looks at the name, address and optional date of birth for a match. Common law has long recognized that signatures could be holographic, a mark, or fingerprint, and under Utah law an electronic indication of assent (or electronic signature).

“There has been case law established that contracts are valid where the actor simply checks the “I agree” button on a contract thereby providing their electronic signature. An example is that Microsoft licensing agreements are done in this manner. The State of Utah already uses electronic signatures for renewal of professional and driver’s licenses; application for hunting and fishing licenses; filing tax returns for individual income taxes, sales and use taxes, unemployment insurance; many court documents; registration of products, brands, corporation names, motor vehicles; applications for unemployment, health and insurance benefits, and many, many more services and transactions amounting to millions of dollars. The State of Utah has also already passed a law to allow for electronic voter registration where holographic signatures are required by using links to the driver’s license database.

“In addition to the new voter registration law allowing voter registration with an electronic signature, they have long been in use for filing lobbyist finance disclosure reports, signing the polling books, and campaign finance reports.

“So we were somewhat surprised when we were met with uncompromising resistance from the State Election Department. They tried every method possible to shut down the process. Eventually, the Utah Supreme Court, in a case about signatures allowing candidate access to the ballot, required the State Election Department to accept electronic signatures.

“Utah’s State Election Department is still opposed to setting up a process to accept such signatures and therefore is supporting SB055 to allow them to prevent future acceptance. They claim that their support is to provide for thoughtful rule making but instead it provides a prohibition unless they affirmatively set a rule.

“Commercial entities need to be very careful about doing business with the State of Utah if this measure passes. Unless a state agency has adopted a rule on electronic signatures, they would not be valid. Software licenses, products order online by employees of the agencies, requests for proposals, purchase orders delivered via facsimile or e-mail may all be invalid unless the agency has promulgated a rule.

The Utah Democratic Party understands the need for an orderly process for things like petition signatures and encourages the State Election Department to adopt a workable rule. SB055 is bad law. State agencies will have no impetus to accept electronic submissions if they can “Just say No!” Rule making should not be a matter of whether electronic signatures are acceptable, but rather the appropriate manner. All electronic signatures should be valid unless rule making has provided a more specific manner of submission.”

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sponsor of Utah’s S.B. 55 proclaims his support for referenda, initiatives, and electronic signatures, but doubts remain

Utah State Senator Stephen Urquhart is the author of Senate Bill 55 (S.B. 55), which would require state agencies to engage in a formal rule-making procedure regarding the acceptance of electronic signatures before any such signatures could be accepted. Critics of the bill say it is an attempt to contravene a recent Utah State Supreme Court decision (Anderson v. Bell) legitimizing the use of electronic signatures on official state petitions, such as those used to qualify independent gubernatorial candidates for the state ballot.

At a hearing on this bill before the Utah legislature’s Business and Labor committee on February 15th, Senator Urquhart spoke out strongly in support of the referendum and initiative processes and of electronic signatures. He offered no assurances, however, that, should his bill pass, Utahns would be able to sign referendum or initiative petitions, or ballot access petitions, electronically.

In a February 10th interview with Etopia News, Paul Neuenschwander, Chief of Staff to Utah Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell, the state’s chief election officer, said that, in his view, S.B. 55 would return regulation of electronic signatures “back to the way it was” before the Supreme Court’s decision in Anderson v. Bell and indicated that the Lieutenant Governor’s office would not be accepting electronic signatures for ballot access if the bill passed.

During the February 15th meeting, after accepting an amendment of the bill by its author that he said was designed to narrow its applicability, the committee favorably recommended the bill, sending it on to a second reading in the Utah State Senate, where it is now pending.

As currently worded, S.B. 55 would prohibit the acceptance of electronic signatures in Utah by any “state agency” that had not first gone through a rule-making procedure to determine the criteria for accepting such signatures.

The only member of the general public to testify before the committee was attorney Brent Manning, who represented Farley Anderson, the independent gubernatorial candidate in Anderson v. Bell who sought to use electronic signatures to gain access to the state ballot.

He told the committee, as he had previously told Etopia News, that the passage of S.B. 55 “would absolutely cripple the ability of the state to conduct electronic commerce” because it would render invalid even the most commonly-occurring instances of electronic commerce involving electronic signatures, such as buying a book online.

Asked by Senator Karen Mayne why, if the bill would do so much damage to electronic commerce in Utah, he was the only person testifying against it, Mr. Manning attributed this to the fact that “it’s been under the radar,” and went on to say that “the ACLU alerted me to this happening and I looked at the bill and commented upon it in the Internet press. I think that sparked the amendment that was made just now.”

Also appearing before the panel was Mark Thomas, Director of Elections for the Lieutenant Governor’s office, who thanked “the sponsor for running this bill.”

During consideration of the bill, Senator Urquhart spoke passionately about his support for the initiative and referendum processes, electronic signatures, and the digital domain generally, saying at one point that “I think I’ve been out on the digital frontier for a while and I like being there and I like our state being there. It is so convenient for our citizens and, as Mr. Manning said, this can be done with tremendous reliability.”

He asserted his support for referenda and initiatives, saying, during his summation of the legislation, that “On my blog I’ve talked repeatedly about referenda and initiative, having the distinction of being the only legislator ever to have a piece of legislation overturned by referendum. I have opinions on the topic and my opinion is that they’re great. I’m an enthusiastic supporter of referenda and initiatives. I do not want to chill democratic participation at all. We need more of it, and so let’s make it easier, but anything we love and want to encourage we have to make sure that it works and that’s the intent of this.”

But he was vague about actually saying if his bill would allow for the electronic signing of referendum, initiative and ballot access petitions. Asked by Senator Gene Davis, “Does that mean that the Lieutenant Governor’s office or a clerk in one of the counties could recognize those signatures and they would be valid or would that have to go to the Lieutenant Governor’s office and they’d have to set the policy to be able to do those?,” Senator Urquhart replied:

“Well, if it’s a statewide referendum then that would go through our elections office and they would have to set a policy for accepting electronic signatures. You know, let me state I want us to be very active in this. I would love for us to be the state that is the most aggressive on accepting electronic signatures but let’s just do this in a thought-out manner.”

Asked further by Senator Davis “Would the electronic signature have to go through the Lieutenant Governor’s office or a portal that was set up by those who were trying to put the referendum in place?,” Senator Urquhart said:

“Well, I wouldn’t want to tell the Lieutenant Governor’s office, the Elections Office, how it would best go about this, so it would set the rules determining the answer to your question, it would look at this situation, it would look to see the ways that it could be the most convenient for the citizenry, the most conducive to democratic participation and also the way best to secure against fraud. And so it would come up with the answer to your question. I can’t do that right here and now.”

To repeat, what Senator Urquhart said during the February 15th hearing on S.B. 55 in no way contradicted what was said in the February 10th interview with Etopia News by Paul Neuenschwander, Chief of Staff to Utah Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell, the state’s chief election officer, when he said that, in his view, S.B. 55 would return regulation of electronic signatures “back to the way it was” before the Supreme Court’s decision in Anderson v. Bell and indicated that the Lieutenant Governor’s office would not be accepting electronic signatures for ballot access (nor, presumably, for initiatives or referenda, either) if the bill is enacted into law.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Egypt, Utah, EU: Support for, and opposition to, Internet-mediated efforts to expand democratic governance

a video op-ed discussing efforts to expand or restrict Internet-mediated democratic governance, recorded by its author, Marc Strassman, on February 17, 2011, in Studio City, California

Egypt, Utah, EU: Support for, and opposition to, Internet-mediated efforts to expand democratic governance

(If you'd prefer to watch the author read this article, instead of reading it yourself, or in addition to reading it yourself, click here.

Hillary Rodham Clinton and her deputies in the U.S. State Department have been going crazy lately supporting the rights of people worldwide to use the Internet to more widely “distribute leadership” (in the words of Alec Ross, Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Secretary of State). She is speaking, of course, of efforts by Tunisians, Egyptians, and Iranians to organize peaceful protests against despotic regimes. She is very supportive of the use of Twitter and Facebook to schedule demonstrations, distribute video footage of these protests, and convey the spirit of peoples in revolt.

Not part of Secretary Clinton’s exhortations is the fact that the Internet can also be used, once democracy is achieved, to directly channel the will of the people into legislation that will determine how these people themselves will be governed. “Smart Initiatives” is a system whereby the citizens in a democracy can electronically sign officially-recognized petitions that call for the submission to a vote of proposed legislation.

The Next Step in the Evolution of Internet Political Activism

The European Union (EU) has already adopted Smart Initiatives, in the form of the European Citizens’ Initiative, which requires the consideration of proposed legislation by the European Commission and the European Parliament when one million Europeans electronically and/or manually sign that proposed legislation.

No individual country, including none of the nascent democracies in North Africa or the Middle East, has yet adopted Smart Initiatives for its own people. But, in the wake of the surging democratic tide breaking over this region, powered by the Internet, it may be only a matter of time before the concept of Smart Initiatives begins to permeate these digital crowds and they start clamoring for the right, not just to overthrow authoritarian regimes using the indispensable modern technology of the Internet, but to use this same Internet as a means for formulating the laws under which they are governed.

Obstacles to this Evolution in the U.S.

Back in the U.S., little despots are doing what they can to block the way forward to a Internet-powered democratic future. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are working hard trying to block the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s recently-issued and limited regulations designed to insure “net neutrality,” a code word for open and non-discriminatory access to the broadband information superhighway.

In Utah, members of the State Senate, frightened that a legislative ethics reform initiative sponsored by Utahns for Ethical Government will qualify for the ballot if electronic signatures collected in its support are counted, are pushing S.B. 55, which would curtail the use of electronic signatures throughout government in that State, including, they hope, on initiative petitions.

In a recent interview with the Etopia News Channel, Utahns for Ethical Government founder and spokesperson David Irvine said he thought the motivations behind authoritarian governments’ efforts to curtail the use of the Internet to organize their populations were the same as those behind the efforts of legislators in his state to stifle the use of the Internet to organize that state’s population in support of what he considers to be badly-needed ethics legislation.

In fact, it is hard to see the difference in intent between Utah legislators trying to prevent their own reform by limiting the use of the Internet and the efforts by national dictators elsewhere to prevent their own reform by limiting the use of the Internet.

Wait and Hope

Meanwhile, we can only wait and hope for the large numbers of Internet-users rising up against repressive regimes to take the next conceptual step and realize that the same tool they are using to gain their freedom can be effectively used to exercise it going forward, in the shape of their own indigenous forms of Smart Initiatives.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Utah Senate committee amends and favorably recommends S.B. 55; opposing attorney still opposed.

S.B. 55, a bill that would fundamentally restructure Utah’s approach to electronic signatures, was today amended and favorably recommended on a 6-0-2 vote of the Utah State Senate’s Business and Labor Committee.

Voting to favorably recommend the measure were: Senators Gene Davis, David Hinkins, Karen Mayne, Stephen Urquhart (the bill’s primary sponsor), John Valentine (committee chairman), and Kevin Van Tassell. Absent from the vote were Senators Daniel Liljenquist and Curtis Bramble. No one voted against the favorable recommendation.

Responding to criticism of the original bill’s provisions voiced by Utah attorney Brent Manning in a February 10, 2011, Etopia News article, the amended version of the proposed law now excludes state courts, the legislature, and political sub-divisions of the state from its electronic signature rule-making requirements.

Manning, who argued the case for Farley Anderson in the Anderson v. Bell case that this law is intended to overturn, is still opposed to the bill in its present form. As now written, he says, “It will not overturn Anderson v. Bell,” but it will still do a lot of collateral damage. Its supporters, he claims, “are aiming at a target that they’ll miss,” but will nevertheless place “extra burdens on electronic commerce” in Utah, a state that, he points out, once led the way in the adoption and use of electronic signatures.

Accordingly, he still opposes the legislation, because, he says, it interferes with long-standing principles governing the use of signatures that are “so well-established in Anglo-American law,” and because he opposes any effort to “limit the ability of citizens to petition” their government. He calls S.B. 55 “unwise legislation,” and says he hopes “that sounder minds will prevail” before it is passed by the Legislature.

Monday, February 14, 2011

S.B. 55 author won’t comment on his own bill

Utah State Senator Steve Urquhart, author of S.B. 55, which would reverse the Utah Supreme Court’s decision allowing independent gubernatorial candidates to get on the ballot by collecting petition signatures electronically, today declined to comment on his plans for his bill.

The legislation had been scheduled for a hearing in the Utah State Senate Business and Labor Committee on February 3, 2011, but, according to minutes of that meeting, “Chair Valentine called the meeting to order at 2:44 p.m. and announced that at the requests of the sponsors, S.B. 109 and S.B. 55, would not be considered at today's meeting.”

The sponsor of S.B. 55, Senator Urquhart, finally responded to repeated requests for comments on his plans for this legislation by saying today, through a spokesperson, that he would have no comment.

The bill has been re-scheduled for a hearing tomorrow, in the Business and Labor Committee, according to a published agenda of that committee. The hearing is scheduled for 4:00 pm MST in at 215 Senate Building, Utah State Capitol Complex.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Utah is opposed to this bill.

It is also opposed by Utah attorney Brent Manning, who argued the original case giving independent gubernatorial candidates the right to collect electronic signatures on their ballot access petitions. Manning said that the bill was "improperly motivated" and that it would “absolutely compromise commerce and the government in Utah.”

Friday, February 11, 2011

A spectre is haunting more than Europe--the spectre of Smart Initiatives

Smart Initiatives is an electoral process in which citizens can use the Internet, not just to tweet about demonstrations, or to build Facebook pages for a cause, but to actually use the Internet to electronically sign petitions to put proposals for new laws before voters, or before the European Parliament, to demand the right to vote on already-passed legislation, to recall elected officials they’ve lost faith in, or to qualify a candidate for a place on the ballot.

The European Union (EU), with a population of 500 million people, has already adopted Smart Initiatives, in the form of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), which will go into effect early in 2012. The ECI will let EU citizens propose laws for consideration by the European Parliament by collecting one million signatures, distributed across the several countries of the EU, including by electronic means.

The latest issue regarding this process involves whether or not European citizens who wish to sign these ECI’s electronically will need to submit their national ID numbers in order to do so. This issue is addressed in a recent article entitled “A Serious (but Removable) Obstacle: ID Card Numbers and the ECI.”

In the United States, adoption of Smart Initiatives has not proceeded this far, but there are signs that it is becoming more and more prominent as an item on the political agenda.

Utah’s Supreme Court decided in September, 2010, that “Electronic signatures are as valid as handwritten signatures in qualifying independent candidates who seek to get their names on the general election ballot,” according to an article by Cathy McKitrick in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Showing how important this small step was, efforts are already underway by opponents of this court decision to reverse it by passing new legislation (S.B. 55) regarding the acceptability of electronic signatures in Utah. According to Paul Neuenschwander, Chief of Staff to Utah’s Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell, who was the defendant who lost in the original case, “the Lieutenant Governor’s office would not be accepting electronic signatures for ballot access if the bill passed.”.

Slightly further east in the U.S., Nebraska State Senator Paul Schumacher has introduced Legislative Bill 566 (LB 566), which would bring Smart Initiatives to the Cornhusker State by allowing citizens there to use “state-qualified data” to identify and authenticate themselves while electronically signing initiative, referendum, and recall petitions. Senator Schumacher thinks his bill is “essential,” but doesn’t think it will pass. The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry has taken no position on the bill, but is “monitoring” its status.

And, just north of Utah, members of the Independent American Party of Idaho are hoping to gain access to that state’s ballot as a recognized party by collecting some of the required signatures electronically.

Much ink and electrons have been spilled in recent days debating the impact of the Internet as a tool for social and political change, especially in terms of its ability to motivate and coordinate protesters in Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt. Lost in the discussion is the fact that, at least in Europe, the Internet can also, and already, be used to directly facilitate the making of public policy, through the process of the European Citizens’ Initiative and the right it affords to sign official initiative petitions electronically online.

Adoption of the Smart Initiative process is not yet so far advanced in the United States. But as attention is riveted on the bloggers and others in Tahrir Square, one can note the Internet is not just useful for organizing mass movements, but, once those movements have brought democracy to a country, that it can be used for mobilizing the intelligence and will of that country’s people in the actual formulation and implementation of public policy, through the use of some form of Smart Initiatives.

Perhaps both of these roles will be realized someday with the adoption and routine use of Smart Initiatives in Egypt and other Middle Eastern and North African democracies.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Utah attorney calls SB 55 “improperly motivated” and says it will “absolutely compromise commerce and the government in Utah.”

In September, 2010, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that “Electronic signatures are as valid as handwritten signatures in qualifying independent candidates who seek to get their names on the general election ballot,” according to an article in The Salt Lake Tribute.

Now a Utah State Senator, Stephen Urquhart, is seeking to overturn this decision through the introduction in the legislature of S.B. 55 , which “requires a governmental agency to adopt a policy concerning electronic signatures before the governmental agency may accept an electronic signature.”

According to Brent Manning, a Utah attorney with Manning Curtis Bradshaw & Bednar LLC who successfully litigated Anderson v. Bell, the aforementioned case which the state Supreme Court decided in favor of his client, Farley Anderson, this proposed “statute is improperly motivated to stop citizens getting on the ballot and would absolutely compromise commerce and the government in Utah.”

He argues that passage of this legislation would overturn “thousands of years” of accepted legal practice in what constitutes a “signature,” any mark made by a person with the intent to express their consent to an agreement, including “X”’s made by the unlettered, clicks on “I agree” buttons on web sites, and electronic codes used to transfer vast sums of money between financial institutions.

Manning argued, in a phone interview with Etopia News, that, under the terms of S.B. 55, in order for a Utah court to enforce a contract sealed with an electronic signature, it would need to engage in a “rule-making process” which, as a court, it is not able to do, since its function is to decide cases, not make rules. Thus, no electronic signature, or online purchase, or other electronically-agreed-to contract could be enforced in Utah courts.

S.B. 55 “would completely invalidate all electronic transactions in Utah,” concludes Manning. “Every government department would have to engage in rule-making that would paralyze the process,” he said.

Senator Urquhart, author of S.B. 55, did not return a call made last week asking for his comment on his bill.

But Paul Neuenschwander, Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell’s Chief of Staff, did talk to Etopia News about the bill this afternoon. He said that S.B. 55 would return regulation of electronic signatures “back to the way it was” before the Supreme Court’s decision in Anderson v. Bell.

Asked if Lieutenant Governor Bell had a role in originating the bill, his chief of staff said that “he may have talked to Senator Urquhart. I don’t know.”

He said that passage of S.B. 55 would create “an opt-in, not an opt-out” system for electronic signatures for state agencies. The main issue with electronic signatures, he said, was “how to control their validity and accuracy.”

Developing a system by which electronic signatures could be accepted, he argued, would take time and money, and he made the point that, given budget constraints, money would not be easy to find for this purpose. The state would proceed in this matter, he said, “carefully, slowly, and in a measured way.”

“Will Utah be leading the way in electronic signatures?” he asked rhetorically, answering that question by saying, “I don’t think so.”

He indicated that the Lieutenant Governor’s office would not be accepting electronic signatures for ballot access if the bill passed.

He said that it wasn’t the intention of S.B. 55 to shut down electronic commerce in Utah, as predicted by Mr. Manning. He said that Mr. Manning could present his views to the committee hearing the bill and “if he can show the committee” that that was a likely result, they would take his views into account.

“We don’t want to shut down electronic commerce in Utah,” he insisted.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Terry Cooke updates the China-U.S. renewable energy story

Terry Cooke, 2010 Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, talks about the recent visit to the U.S. of Chinese President Hu Jintao and the current status of U.S.-China cooperation in renewable energy, recorded from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 7, 2011

Travis Bradford on "Solar Revolution"

Travis Bradford, Founder, President, and Director of the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development, talks about the ideas in his 2006 book "Solar Revolution," recorded from Chicago, Illinois, on February 8, 2011

Friday, February 4, 2011

Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry is “monitoring” state’s Smart Initiatives bill

Asked this afternoon about the lobbying group’s views on Nebraska Legislative Bill 566 (LB 566), Jamie Karl, Vice President of Public Affairs and Policy at the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry told Etopia News “We don’t have a position on it; we’re just monitoring it at this point.”

He didn’t recognize the bill by its number, but seemed to respond with alacrity when informed that it was the pending Smart Initiatives bill , which would allow Nebraskans to sign initiative, referendum, and recall petitions electronically online.

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry was among the largest contributors to the 2008 election campaign of two members of the state’s unicameral legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, which will hold a hearing on LB 566 in late February or early March.

According to information on the Ballotpedia website, the Chamber contributed $3,400 to the campaign of Nebraska State Senator Charlie Janssen and $1,500 to the campaign of Nebraska State Senator Rich Pahls.

Given that no member of the committee that’s going to hear it, except for the bill’s author , nor Governor Dave Heineman , has yet taken a public position on the Smart Initiatives measure, one has to wonder how much “monitoring” the Chamber needs to do to stay on top of the bill’s progress.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Governor of Nebraska has not taken a position on LB 566, Nebraska’s “Smart Initiative” bill

In an exclusive comment to Etopia News, since no one else has cared enough to ask, Governor Dave Heineman, said today through a spokesperson that he “has not taken a public position on this bill [Legislative Bill 566] and will do so if or when it makes it to his desk.”

Legislative Bill 566
, authored by Nebraska State Senator Paul Schumacher, would allow Nebraskans to use “state-qualified data” to authenticate themselves online while signing initiative, referendum, and recall petitions electronically.

Polled recently by Etopia News, most members of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee have said they will wait for the hearing on the bill before making up their minds on the legislation. A hearing on the bill has not yet been scheduled, but is expected to take place late in February or early March.

Senator Schumacher has said he thinks passage of this legislation is essential in order to counter recent court decisions and legislative changes that have made it almost impossible to qualify initiatives in the state. He’s said he does not think the bill will pass during the current session of the legislature.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Nebraska's "Smart Initiatives" bill is essential, but won't pass, says its author

Nebraska State Senator Paul Schumacher, author and sponsor of Legislative Bill 566 (LB566), which would create a “Smart Initiatives” system allowing Nebraska voters to electronically sign initiative and related petitions online, thinks that passing it is essential if the “people of Nebraska” are to remain “the second house” in the only state with a unicameral legislature. He doesn’t think, however, that the time is propitious for its passage in this session of that unicameral legislature, which he says will be “swamped in misery” dealing with Nebraska’s budget woes.

In an exclusive phone interview this afternoon with Etopia News, Senator Schumacher, who represents District 22 in the Nebraska legislature, explained how the state’s initiative rules were “reasonably healthy until the 1990s,” when a combination of court decisions and actions by the legislature made it increasingly difficult to collect the signatures required to qualify a proposed measure for the ballot.

These decisions included the substitution of the term “registered voters” for “electors” (people who actually voted) in the state constitution, which effectively doubled the number of signatures required. Also adding to the difficulties was a requirement that the signatures needed to be gathered in a large proportion of counties across the state. The addition of a vague “single subject” rule has meant that some proposed initiatives needed to be divided in several parts, each of which needed to get the required number of signatures.

All of these impediments made qualifying initiatives in Nebraska difficult but not impossible, he said. But the passage in 2008 of Legislative Bill 39, which imposed residency requirements on signature gatherers and prohibited paying them according to the number of signatures they collected effectively blocked, according to Senator Schumacher, any possible efforts to qualify ballot initiatives in the state.

So, in order to circumvent these restrictions, he’s introduced Legislative Bill 566 , which would set up a system for collecting electronic signatures online in support of ballot initiatives.

“Nebraska is in a unique position” with its unicameral legislature, he said, and for this reason “reserved the right of the people” to legislate through the initiative process, which he now thinks needs to include online signature gathering in order to remain viable.

“We know that all kinds of things can be done over the internet, including massive cash transfers,” he said, so why not be able to collect initiative signatures the same way? Collecting signature online, he added, allows this to be done without the need to “bother people on the street,” where they are susceptible to being harassed by “hawkers” and “anti-hawkers” sent out by opponents of a ballot measure.

Identification and authentication of the electronic signatures can be accomplished by relying on a variety of existing bits of digitally-stored data, including those associated with driver’s licenses, state taxes, or even from newly-created electronic records created when citizens make an online contribution to a special state maintenance fund set up to pay for the online signature gathering process itself.

Using this method to validate signatures, says Schumacher, is just as secure as “hiring people to be handwriting experts” to check manual signatures by hand. Allowing signatures to be gathered online, he argues, would address the problem created by the need to separate provisions of a measure into multiple petitions to satisfy the “single-subject” rule; would reduce the cost of circulating initiative petitions; and would generally increase the convenience of the process.

And, in order to provide another check on misuse of an electronic system, postcards would be mailed to everyone who electronically signed, notifying them that someone had signed in their name, and providing a means by which falsely submitted signatures could be weeded out.

Despite the advantages of cost and convenience, and the security with which signatures could be verified, Senator Schumacher does not think his bill will pass the legislature, at least not this year.

He says that this is primarily because the legislators will be “obsessed with the budget crisis” facing the state. “It’s not going to wind its way through the process,” he told Etopia News.

Nevertheless, he said it was “integral” to democracy in Nebraska that the right of initiative be preserved as a “viable tradition” in the state. “We have to figure out a way to do it, in order to bring ourselves into the 21st century and to retain the status of the people as the second house of Nebraska.”

(In violation of this article's own "single-subject" rule, it might be noted that the European Union, a political jurisdiction containing roughly 500 million people [approximately 250 times that of Nebraska], has already adopted Smart Initiatives in the form of the European Citizens' Initiative [ECI], which is discussed in detail by the Institute for Initiative and Referendum-Europe's President, Bruno Kaufmann, in a remotely-recorded video interview from Etopia News here.)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

“Smart Initiatives” might fit the bill in the Middle East, too.

As Nebraskans start discussing “Smart Initiatives” and Europeans move steadily forward towards implementing them throughout the EU , the time may have arrived to consider this approach to direct democracy, which allows citizens to propose legislation using online electronic signature gathering, as part of the evolving transition to democracy in North Africa and the Middle East.

Much discussion has already taken place about possible paths towards democracy for previously-authoritarian states. One approach (“invasion and nation-building”) was that applied by the Bush Administration to transition Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship to an American-compliant form of “democracy.” A similar effort is still underway in Afghanistan, and, obviously, still faces a lot of problems.

American democracy grew out of centuries of previous evolution towards the rule of law and representative government in England and in the colonies. It’s not surprising that countries and cultures with radically-different histories don’t easily slip into their own versions of the Jeffersonian democratic ideal.

Tunisia, and now Egypt, represent a different path from dictatorship to democracy. Two fundamental aspects of these two revolutions are their decentralized, leaderless form and their mediation by electronic social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and related technologies.

The “law of uneven development” argues that societies can often transition directly from a less-developed form to a more-developed one without having to go through the transitional states characteristic of societies that have evolved further, but more slowly, to a certain state.

Phone technology is a prime example of this law. Cellular telephony is now more ubiquitous in Africa than landlines, which never really penetrated deeply into the society. Farmers and others in Africa, in some cases skipping ahead even of their counterparts in more developed countries, can now use their cell phones to manage their businesses in real time. Money can be transferred directly using cell phone networks from village to village and from village to city. The law of uneven development has allowed Africans to go from “no phones” to “advanced digital cellular networks” in much less time than it took the West to deploy its landline networks, without going through that part of the development process themselves.

Similarly, the largely-leaderless and Internet-mediated revolts in Tunisia and Egypt point to the possibility that governance there could also skip transitional democratic structures and go directly to an Internet-centric, directly-democratic form, employing, at a minimum, some form of Smart Initiatives, as are now being implemented in the European Union under terms of the Lisbon Treaty.

These rebellions have been powered by Internet-savvy social networkers much of whose organizing has been done online. They are looking for new ways of governing themselves that allow for collaboration and cooperation. They have already demonstrated to themselves and the world that they can use these digital tools to achieve great things through collaboration and cooperation.

Maybe it’s time for them and us to think about the possibility of continuing their explorations into new forms of democracy by letting them use the Internet to formulate policy and aggregate popular demands for specific legislation through a form of Smart Initiatives similar to the one now being implemented in Europe and starting to be considered in Nebraska.

Of course, universal broadband Internet access for everyone in these society is necessary for Smart Initiatives to be implemented fairly and for reasons of justice and equity. That’s another goal worth vigorously pursuing, not least for its ability to enable Smart Initiatives (and someday, Internet voting), but also for its economic, social, cultural, and ecological benefits.

Finally, implementing Smart Initiatives in the new democracies of North Africa and the Middle East could serve as an inspiration for our own adoption of this method as a way of strengthening and broadening democracy back here in the United States. Then we can benefit from the law of uneven development ourselves.

Bruno Kaufmann updates the ECI story

Bruno Kaufmann, President of the Institute for Initiative and Referendum-Europe, talks about his recent trip to Germany, Brussels, and Vienna, during which he collected new information about the deployment of the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI), recorded from Falun, Sweden, on February 1, 2011

Two more Nebraska State Senators will wait for hearing on “Smart Initiatives” bill to make up their minds about it

There’s a proposal pending in the Nebraska Legislature, Legislative Bill 566 (LB 566), authored by State Senator Paul Schumacher, that would implement “Smart Initiatives,” in the Cornhusker State, allowing Nebraskans to sign initiative, referendum, and recall petitions online using electronic signatures.

Etopia News has been reporting on this bill, including comments from most of the members of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, where this bill will be heard and discussed sometime around the end of February or start of March.

Two more members of this committee replied to Etopia News inquiries about their positions on LB 566 today.

Through a spokesperson, Senator Charlie Jansson, a businessman in Fremont, Nebraska, and the representative of the state’s 15th District, said that since there had not yet been a hearing on the bill, he “could not say he was for it or against it.”

Russ Karpisek, owner and operator of Karpisek’s Meat Market and the state senator representing the 32nd District, said via his spokesperson that he also wanted to wait for the hearing to make up his mind on the bill, and added that “if there were a safe and verifiable way of collecting signatures [online] he’d consider it.”

These comments from Senators Jansson and Karpisek leave Senator Kate Sullivan, a banker and business executive from Cedar Rapids, Nebraska, who represents the state’s 41st District, as the only member of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee who hasn’t yet expressed a view on the Smart Initiatives measure, LB 566.