Politics and Privacy, Part I

September 26th, 2008 by Grace Meng

Rock the Vote Application

Catalist and Rock the Vote recently launched an effort to increase voter registration through a very exact tool, a Facebook application.   Using Catalist’s voter targeting databases, and knowing who has downloaded a voter registration form from Rock the Vote’s widget, they’re asking Facebook users to call the people who never actually sent in their forms and remind them to do so.

I’m curious to know how potential voters are responding to these phone calls.  Given Rock the Vote’s target demographic, and the age of most users on Facebook, they may not be as shocked to get a phone call as an older voter might. And in general, I think people are more aware that their personal information is being collected, analyzed, and shared in the political context than they are in other contexts.  I’ve had friends tell me they don’t make donations, even to candidates they support, for fear of getting on “some list.”  And anyone who has ever lived in a state or district involving a close race knows that it’s not uncommon to have a total stranger call you or even knock on your door and ask for you by name.

These kinds of intrusions can be annoying, and in some communities, being outed as a Democrat or a Republican can have more serious repercussions.  But in general, I don’t think the public is as uncomfortable with this kind of data collection by political campaigns and the Federal Election Commission as they are when it’s being done by search engines or ISPs.  (I’m not talking specifically about detailed voter profiling and data mining, which I think is slightly different and will blog about separately.)

I think there are a couple of reasons for this.  First, people believe there are a number of issues that have to be weighed.  It’s not just their privacy rights versus a company’s profits, but their privacy rights versus democratic principles, like government transparency in the case of FEC disclosure.  Second, the data collection is extremely obvious.  We all know campaigns are tracking who’s donated, so they can ask again and again and again, at least until that maximum contribution limit is reached.

Most importantly, though, people want their candidate to win.  If they are contributing more than $200 in an election cycle to a political candidate, they can live with being in the campaign’s database, as well as the FEC’s.  If they care enough to go to a rally and then are asked for their email address, they don’t mind being sent emails from the campaign day after day.  They know that if they are called during dinner and reminded to vote for their candidate, the other likely voters are being called, too.  Heck, the most enthusiastic supporters are using the data themselves, by volunteering for phonebanks and canvassing, as with the Catalist/Facebook application.

Political data collection has some lessons to teach data collection in other arenas.  Don’t try to hide what you’re doing—be obvious.  Even more importantly, give people an incentive to provide information.  Google and Yahoo can assure us that the log data, the IP addresses, the tracking they do when we’re logged into their email accounts, are all meant to provide us a better service, but we don’t really feel like we’re getting something out of it, especially compared to what they’re getting out of it.  These companies currently seem to be working on the model of “Don’t worry, whatever we’re doing won’t hurt you.”  The model should be, “Participate and get value out of the data yourselves.”

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