Senior Regional Correspondent

Since the Internet’s early days, optimists have predicted that the technology would be a huge plus for democracy by dramatically expanding opportunities for direct engagement with the public.

Now, part of that dream is being fulfilled. Grass-roots activists in our region (and elsewhere) are increasingly using online petitions as a fast, effective way to recruit supporters and pressure authorities.

The Web appeals promote all kinds of causes, from the high-minded to the mundane, and the trend is toward local campaigns. Ordinary citizens are finding such petitions especially valuable in pushing issues that otherwise might escape public attention.

One such advocate is Matt Landon, 21, a surf shop manager in Ocean City. He started an online petition on in late August to oppose a plan to allow fishermen to drive trucks on the beach during the offseason.

The City Council killed the plan in less than a week as the petition quickly drew more than 900 cyber-signatures.

“People were sharing it like crazy on Facebook. All the surf shops were sharing it. Everybody in the community came together,” Landon said. “We pretty much stopped [the proposal] right away.”

In other local cases, an online petition helped force Meridian Pint, a popular bar and restaurant in the District, to offer paid sick leave to some employees.

Another asks the District to allow a Harris Teeter grocery store to be built on Florida Avenue.

A third, addressed to Maryland highway authorities, seeks traffic signal adjustments and new road construction to relieve constant backups on Route 210 in Charles and Prince George’s counties.

Mark Guetzka, 45, who commutes on the highway, eagerly signed the petition after a friend shared it with him on Facebook.

“I read it and said, ‘This is great; somebody’s finally trying to do something,’ ” said Guetzka, of White Plains.

All of the petitions were hosted by, the leading Web site involved in such work. Anyone can start a petition there for any cause, providing it meets guidelines that include restrictions against hate speech, illegality and pornography.

The site more than tripled its number of users in Maryland, the District and Virginia in the past two years, to a total of just over 1 million. The number of new local petitions doubled over that period, to 4,736 last year. is an unusual type of enterprise, certified as a B Corporation. It earns profits but is formally committed to use them to advance a social mission rather than to distribute the money to private shareholders.

Founder and chief executive Ben Rattray has promised repeatedly that he will never convert the company to a purely for-profit enterprise.

I became aware of the growing role of online petitions because they played a significant part in several local stories that I followed.

An online petition quickly generated support for the “Phantom Planter,” who secretly planted flowers at the Dupont Circle Metro station. Another called attention to the case of former Navy reservist Graciela Saraiva, who fought successfully to clear her military record after being mistakenly accused of drug abuse.

In the most dramatic recent case, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) was swayed by more than 300,000 signatures on a petition regarding the controversy over Ethan Saylor, a man with Down syndrome who died in the custody of Frederick County sheriff’s deputies.

Emma Saylor, who is Ethan’s sister, put a petition on last year. It called for an independent investigation of the incident and for improved training for police and other authorities in handling people with Down syndrome.

With active promotion by and the National Down Syndrome Society, the petition went viral locally and nationally in August. After boxes of printouts of the petitions were presented to O’Malley in September, the governor appointed a task force to recommend training changes.

The petition “made a huge contribution to the impact of the success we’ve had with the governor’s office,” said Sara Hart Weir, a vice president of the Down syndrome group.

“The online voice in the world we operate in is probably the most powerful tool that groups like ours have,” she said.

For institutions like Weir’s and individuals like Emma Saylor, it’s good to see new technology adapted to worthy efforts.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to