Openness is hard, but here’s why it matters

Last month, 16-year old Josie Pohla was featured in The Sun Herald as one of the four women changing the face of Australian activism. Josie’s inspiring story began two years ago when she started a petition on Change.org to speak out about the domestic violence she had experienced that led to her mother’s suicide. Josie’s petition resulted in statewide changes to the education curriculum — as a direct result of her efforts, domestic violence education is now taught in all schools in NSW, so students like her can seek help for their families before it is too late.

At Change.org, we have the privilege of seeing so many powerful stories like this from around the world, but this particular story has always struck a chord with me. As a then 14-year old girl, Josie is not the kind of person who would otherwise be able to influence members of state parliament. She doesn’t work for a domestic violence organisation that you would typically expect to be behind a policy change of this magnitude. She’s a young woman with a heartbreaking story which she shared with the world using her grandmother’s laptop — and it galvanised Australians from all backgrounds into action.

Josie is the kind of person powerful politicians might not otherwise meet, see, or be compelled to answer, if she didn’t have a direct outlet to speak for herself. And that’s our goal at Change.org — to build an open platform where anyone can be powerful and create change for themselves and their communities.

Yet, at the same time, that openness brings hard questions. We have around 30, 000 petitions started each month, some of which include harmful content. Every petition you see on Change.org can be flagged, and our team spends time reviewing those complaints and removing hate speech, online bullying and anything else we prohibit under our Community Guidelines to make sure Change.org is an open yet safe platform.

That doesn’t mean you’ll agree with all of the content on Change.org; it’s almost certain that you’ll find a petition with which you strongly disagree. Openness means being committed to showing all sides of popular debates, and mirroring conversations that are happening in society more broadly. Censoring all offensive opinions would not enable the types of conversations that need to happen to challenge those views — and, in our experience, the most popular petitions are those that fight for equality and tolerance.

Openness also means we now have 180 million users in 196 countries, and we have to find the right company model to support that size. We’re a certified B-corp, not a non-profit, as this is the path we believe will allow the platform to grow to support even more people making change. As a company, it’s important to us to have strict policies in place to protect the information our users provide to us, outlined in our Privacy Policy. As a matter of policy and principle, we never sell any of our users’ data to any third-party without consent. In the past, our business model was focused on ‘sponsored petitions’ where our users could decide if they wanted to hear updates directly from petition-starting organisations through a check-box. As we look to create a sustainable model that can truly scale, we’re shifting focus toward our membership program where Change.org users can financially contribute to help us sustain our free platform for everyone.

Change.org is the only open petition platform in Australia, but it’s not the only website you can visit to start or sign a petition. We’re excited to see more advocacy organisations use online petitions, as this is testament to their power. Yet, all digital petition platforms will confront tough questions of policy, influence and scale that we have over the years — questions around what content to allow, how to influence decision makers on all sides of the political spectrum to create policy change, and how to connect with hard-to-reach people who need help.

These are hard questions to solve, and there are different ways to solve them. We’ve decided to be an open platform, and tackle its challenges, because we believe that a neutral platform unites people around the power of personal stories, and can build bridges across the political labels that often divide us from moving forward. By doing this, we put people like Josie and your voice first, giving you a direct platform to stand up and speak out for yourself.

Sunita Bose is Change.org’s Global Head of Policy. Before joining Change.org, Sunita worked at Oxfam Australia and UNICEF Australia, supporting advocacy and fundraising efforts to encourage companies and governments to do more to address injustice and inequality

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July 12, 2017 5:58 pm