Concern is growing that the government may ignore thousands of people who have said they opposed the introduction of ID cards in the UK, because they registered their concern via the Web.
Civil liberties group Stand says it has learned that the 5,000 responses that were send to the Home Office from its Internet site will be treated as a single vote.
The Home Office told ZDNet UK on Friday that a decision hasn't yet been taken, despite the consultation finishing some four months ago.
But if the 5,000 responses from Stand are bundled together, then there will be a major outcry that will call into question the government's approach to the Web, and will also see it accused of fixing the consultation process.
Last year, the government announced that it was considering introducing entitlement cards that would contain personal information and possibly also biometric data and would have to be presented when people accessed certain government services. It opened a public consultation on the issue that ran until the end January 2003.
In October 2002, a government minister revealed that two-thirds of the responses received at that stage were in favour of entitlement cards -- which provoked Stand into creating a Web page that explained why it thought entitlement cards, or ID cards, were a bad thing and allowed people to submit their views to the consultation.
A total of 5,029 submissions were sent from the Stand site -- the vast majority of which are likely to have opposed the introduction of entitlement cards. Observers were therefore surprised to see Home Office minister Beverley Hughes tell Parliament last month that the government was "making a detailed assessment of the 2,000 responses received to the consultation exercise."
While it's possible that Hughes has just been given out-of-date information, Stand says it has been tipped off that the government is planning to include every communication received via the Stand Web site as part of a single petition.
In an open letter to Hughes, Danny O'Brien -- a technology journalist and one of Stand's founders -- has expressed his deep unease over the issue, and demanded that the government makes clear its policy on online submissions to consultations for the future.
"Apart from being somewhat concerned for the people who expressed a positive opinion being ascribed into what I presume would be a single negative vote, this seems to lead to a terrible waste of resources, opportunity and time on both our sides," O'Brien said. "Frankly, if we were forewarned that this would happen, we would have told people to sign a petition (in fact, two petitions), and engineered some way of conveying that to you. It would certainly have saved some time and effort on both our sides. As it is, I'm pretty disappointed. And I don't think I'm the only one."
According to the government, a decision about the fate of the 5,029 submissions from Stand will be announced soon. "We're still looking through the responses that were received, and there should be an announcement in a couple of weeks," a Home Office official told ZDNet UK on Friday.
It also appears, though, that the Home Office may have already ignored its critics. It was reported last week that Home Secretary David Blunkett is poised to present the Cabinet with firm plans to introduce a nationwide entitlement card.
Interestingly, the reasons given for their introduction keep changing. Last year, the official line was that entitlement cards would cut down on identity fraud. Now, Blunkett has said that they are necessary to prevent illegal working by migrants.
Either way, introducing them will cost an estimated £1.6bn -- much of which would go to technology companies.