Unitas petition part of a trend


When Apple Computer Inc. announced that it would discontinue software that Kevin Matthews found useful, he decided to take action in a way that the computer pioneer was sure to respect: He created a petition in cyberspace and collected signatures online.

Matthews, president of Artifice Inc., which develops architectural modeling software in Eugene, Ore., said the 1999 petition failed to persuade Apple. But it did attract a community of users who are developing an open-source replacement for Apple's Quick Draw 3-D.

Moreover, the software Matthews devised to collect signatures spawned www.PetitionOnline.com, which he describes as the "original and leading" online petition Web site.

The site has become the focus of a grass-roots effort to rename Baltimore's football stadium for Hall of Fame Baltimore Colts quarterback John Unitas. A petition was drafted shortly after Unitas' death last week, urging the Ravens and Maryland Stadium Authority to name the structure (formerly known as PSINet Stadium) "Johnny Unitas Memorial Stadium."

By late yesterday afternoon, it had collected more than 51,000 electronic "signatures," many with accompanying messages such as: "A classy way to honor a classy guy" and "Just Do It."

Matthews, who calls his free service "a living experiment in true online democracy," hopes the technology will someday play a more prominent role in the republic. There's no technical reason, he notes, that candidates for office couldn't use the platform to collect signatures and to win a spot on a ballot -- something that has yet to be recognized by election officials.

"In theory, they are just as valid as paper petitions," said Matthews, who is the director of PetitionOnline. Federal law permits electronic signatures for credit cards and other documents, he said.

PetitionOnline's program utilizes mechanisms to ferret out double-signers and other defrauders. For a fee, it will also check a statistically selected sample of signatures for a client. These security measures are not fail-safe, he said, but neither are the means by which election officials judge the validity of signatures on paper petitions.

"We feel that the basic level of validity is pretty good. Certainly, it can be spoofed," he said.

The Unitas petition is currently the most active on the site. Other top petitions include one that protests the decision of the Sci-Fi Channel to drop "Farscape." Another calls for removing Rep. Cynthia McKinney's name from a Georgia parkway. The congresswoman lost her seat in a Democratic primary after she accused President Bush of knowingly permitting the Sept. 11 attacks. Another supports reparations for descendants of slaves.

"It's been a lot of fun, and it's become a little institution of the Internet in its own right," Matthews said. "It's really meant a lot to a lot of people."

A dozen petitions have attracted more than 100,000 signatures. The first called for NASCAR to retire car No. 3, the number used by the late Dale Earnhardt (NASCAR has left the issue to the car's owner, who has declined to retire the number).

Altogether, PetitionOnline estimates it has collected 6 million signatures for various causes.

Evidence of its effectiveness is fragmentary. WebTV promised reforms to its service after presented with petitions from disgruntled users. And a CNN executive wrote a letter of apology after a petition protested remarks made by a congressman on a CNN program that were deemed offensive to Muslims.

The Ravens have so far refused to discuss naming the stadium for Unitas, saying it's too soon after his passing. In the past, the team has said it needs the money from a corporate sponsor to remain competitive.

PSINet, a one-time Internet service giant, originally got its name on the new stadium by agreeing to pay the Ravens an average of $5 million a year for 20 years. After the company went bankrupt, the Ravens bought back the rights.

But Steve Gardner, a Harford County engineer and the author of the Unitas petition, said he's happy with the results.

"We didn't think it would take off like this. We thought it might get a few hundred," he said.

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