The online call for action

The campaign website Change.org was founded in San Francisco in 2007 Its purchase of Spanish site Actuable has seen it take off across the Atlantic

Joseba Elola
Francisco Polo in the Change.org office on Madrid's Gran Vía.
Francisco Polo in the Change.org office on Madrid's Gran Vía.Samuel Sánchez

Isabel de la Fuente couldn't bear the thought of seeing Miguel Ángel Flores organize another party. Five deaths — including that of her own daughter Cristina — at the Halloween event he put on in Madrid last year, which ended in a fatal stampede, were more than enough reasons for her. She felt there was an urgent need to make changes to the Madrid Public Events Law and prevent unscrupulous entrepreneurs from selling too many tickets to large events, filling their pockets while endangering lives.

So she turned to the website Change.org. On December 14, 2012 De la Fuente launched a petition aimed at regional premier Ignacio González. The response from the public saw 428,701 signatures. On May 6, 2013 she handed the petition over to González, and the legislative changes are now making their way through the Madrid regional government. "When people come together to get something done, it can be achieved," she says.

Through Change.org, anyone can start a petition for any cause. Supporters sign their names online, and when the campaign ends the signatures get delivered to the corresponding politician or business leader. If all goes to plan, the pressure from the public can force changes to be made.

Founded in 2007, the world's most important petition website already has 45 million users in 196 countries. Five million of these users are Spanish. "Frustration arising from the Spanish government's actions, economic woes and unemployment all played a role," says the website's founder, Ben Rattray, 33, speaking from the company's headquarters in San Francisco. "The feeling that the government isn't listening made it necessary for people to take power into their own hands."

Rattray is the type of guy who talks so fast that he seems to swallow up his own words. And he gets straight to the point. "We want to change the structure of power. We don't defend specific causes; we fight for the idea that people should have the power to decide their own future." Critics of the initiative, however, argue that Change.org encourages armchair activism.

The walls of the San Francisco offices are lined with photographs of people who effected change through their petitions. There is Lauren Todd from Brooklyn, who started a campaign against sexist messages on JC Penney's t-shirts for girls; and Luleki Sizwe, a woman who obtained 100,000 signatures from more than 100 countries against "corrective rape," a common practice in South Africa by which lesbian women are sexually assaulted on the assumption that this will turn them into heterosexuals.

The site has a total of 45 million users, five million of whom are Spanish

The Spanish offices have their own victories to celebrate: there was Brígida Mendoza's successful campaign to stop the closure of the heart-surgery unit at a children's hospital in Gran Canaria, which would have meant the patients having to take a two-and-a-half-hour flight out of the island. And there is the upcoming victory by Elena Alfaro, a 43-year-old architect who protested over the high price of schoolbooks and collected more than 295,000 signatures asking the government for measures to ensure that publishers do not continue hindering the secondhand market. Her proposal has already been incorporated into the new education bill.

"I wish platforms like this one were not necessary," says Alfaro. "That would mean that citizens are communicating with government."

The origin of the platform that Rattray founded six years ago lies with the battle for gay rights. The day that his brother came out of the closet was the day that everything changed. His brother told him that a lot of people sympathized, but nobody did anything about it. So Rattray, who last year was named one of Time Magazine 's 100 most influential people, dropped his plans to join an investment bank and began working on the project. When he launched the site in 2007, he incorporated dozens of tools to let people help: crowdfunding, volunteer work, offline events, blogs... But in the end he realized that the most efficient tool of all were the petitions.

He was not the only one. A Spanish entrepreneur also launched a petition-based website to promote gay rights. Francisco Polo remembers being targeted at school for being different. "That is what developed my sense of injustice. I had no weapons to defend myself," he says.

In December 2009, this 32-year-old law graduate called up Rattray in San Francisco and suggested bringing Change.org to Europe. The Californian declined, saying it was not the right moment. So Polo set up his own platform, called Actuable. The site launch was on September 20, 2010, and it met with resounding success. It had more than 30,000 followers within the first three weeks, and was up to 90,000 after just three months. "People lacked the tools to raise their voice," explains Polo.

A year-and-a-half later, on May 1, 2011, Polo showed up in San Francisco to negotiate a deal. They could either compete or join forces. They chose the latter. Change bought Actuable.

We don't defend specific causes; people should decide their own future"

Rattray's organization registers 30,000 new petitions a month across the world, of which 3,000 are in Spain. But in February of last year, Ricardo Galli, a free software activist, created a bot (a piece of malicious code) to put Change.org to the test by sending false signatures. Following the experiment, Galli is critical of the site.

"Signing through an online email address without verifying it is leaving the door open to fake signatures," he says via telephone from Palma de Mallorca.

Change.org execs admit that they cannot stop the same person from signing twice with two different email accounts, but they stress that the weight of those phony signatures on the total is minimal. They also insist that they have ways to detect signature-generating spam.

Change.org does not filter the petitions, save when instances of racism, discrimination or violence are detected. Funding is obtained through non-profits that pay to find new members among Change.org users, and through users who pay to get their petition promoted to ensure greater visibility. The business model works, and last May Rattray secured 11 million euros in a new round of fundraising.

"We are headed toward a world where governments will increasingly have to answer to citizens," he explains. "The elites who handle the money and who to a great extent dictate the policies in many countries are going to be less powerful."

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