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Enterprise and Bank of America Examples Show How Internet Activism Via Online Petitions Can Lead to Change

A recent petition on Change.org about the nation’s largest rental car company, Enterprise, has caused a stir among internet activists over the past couple of weeks and has demonstrated again that internet activism can lead to change.  

A proposed amendment called The Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act of 2011 was introduced to Congress last July by Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). The amendment would close a loophole that allows rental car companies to rent or sell recalled cars. Despite widespread agreement on this legislation, last week Enterprise Holdings, which owns Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Alamo Rent A Car, and National Car Rental refused to support legislation and said that the company had already made “significant changes and improvements” in its inspection and repair practices of recalled vehicles and that proposed legislation is “unnecessary.”

In 2004, two young women rented a PT Cruiser from Enterprise, not knowing that the car carried an unrepaired safety defect and was under recall.  That defect caused the car to catch fire, killing both girls. In the ensuing court case, Enterprise admitted full liability and the settlement amounted to $15 million in damages. But that case was a reminder that these and many other deaths could have been prevented through simple legislation.

There is already an existing law that prohibits manufacturers and new car dealers from selling recalled cars, but there is no law against rental companies renting or selling such cars. A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that, on average, rental companies fix only about half their vehicles within 90 days from when the vehicles are recalled.

To solve the issue, Hertz Rent-A-Car and the safety-advocacy group, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, reached an agreement to call for Congress to give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration authority over rental car companies, not just car dealers and manufacturers.

 The company’s stubbornness to support this legislation was a perfect example of corporate interests impeding on the safety of its customers and all who share the road with them. But a recent online petition at Change.org last week has led to a change in Enterprise’s position on legislation. Cally Houck, the mother of the deceased sisters, called for online activists to put pressure on Enterprise to support the proposed legislation. The petition went viral, and a day after it was posted on Change.org, the number of signatures grew from 1,500 to nearly 140,000. The internet response to Enterprise’s position on safety through online petitioning was a clear signal to the company about customer concerns.

Just one day after the online release of the petition, Enterprise announced, “In the past, we believed that this step was unnecessary, but a growing number of people, including our customers and business partners, clearly want more assurance on this critical issue … We hear them and what we’ve heard has caused us to rethink our stance.” The company’s support still falls short of endorsement of the proposed amendment by Senators Boxer and Schumpeter, but it was a step in the right direction.

This is not the first cause that has gained traction and resulted in victories through online petitioning. Last fall, Bank of America rescinded its announcement about a $5 ATM fee as a result of an online petition. Not long after, Ecuadorian women who petitioned to close clinics that tortured lesbian patients posted a petition on Change.org that received 113,000 signatures, igniting protests in Quito and a leading to an announcement by the government of Ecuador that it would close the clinics and launch investigations.

Online petitioning has been around for more than a decade, but the rise of online social networking has given this medium for activism a larger voice. Petitions are now much easier to circulate, and recent petitions have led to more victories than ever before. Even the White House has its own site specifically for petitions.

Victories that have resulted from online petitioning are evidence that governments and companies sometimes do listen to calls for change when there is widespread support on the internet, and that the internet is one of the best ways to garner support from all areas of the globe.

To ask Enterprise to take further action and actually endorse legislation that may be voted on in Congress next week, click here.

Photo Credit: Eric E. Johnson

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