Political Consultants: Campaigns Stay Clear Of Privacy Pitfalls

Politics-American-FlagIn the last presidential race, Obama for America 2012 campaign workers had an idea for an email initiative. They wanted to send supporters emails that would include other people's names and phone numbers, with instructions to call them and make sure they went to the polls.

The campaign believed that doing so would have been legal, but nonetheless decided against it, according to Rayid Ghani, chief scientist of the Obama for America 2012 campaign. Speaking at a conference on Friday about data and political campaigns, Ghana said that campaigns, in some respects, “stay far away from the boundary” of what might offend voters, or draw criticisms in the press.

“We couldn't do the whole experiment we wanted to do, because people were really worried about sending out personal information over email,” he said.



Ghani was among nearly two dozen political advisers, ad industry representatives, and journalists who served as panelists at a conference on Friday about data use by political campaigns. The conference was hosted by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication and UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

Discussion spanned a wide range of topics, including how political campaigns actually use data, whether data-mining is in itself a form of speech, and whether campaigns should limit their use of data about voters.

Some people affiliated with campaigns said they only mined online data to target ads to a limited extent. A consultant with TargetPoint, which uses “microtargeting” techniques to serve ads to highly specific groups of voters, scoffed at the idea that a campaign drew on information like whether people tended to view pornography. 

When it came to whether targeting by campaigns should be subject to limits -- either regulations or self-regulatory standards -- opinions varied widely. Micah Sifry, editorial director of Personal Democracy Media, proposed that campaigns should not collect data about people without their explicit consent. He also said that campaigns should give voters data about themselves upon request.

“We're already deep into some disturbing trends,” Sifry said. For instance, in the 2004 election cycle, campaigns used the Web to give out information about the candidates.

Now, they use the Internet to collect data about visitors. Sifry added that the increasing use of data mining could trigger a backlash by voters, which would hurt campaigns.

On the other hand, Matt Lira, deputy executive director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, suggested that regulation -- or even self-regulation -- could prove problematic. Lira specifically expressed concerns about whether political campaigns should use an ad icon that would inform people about behavioral targeting -- or serving ads to users based on their activity across the Web. He said that with political speech, regulators and industry groups need to be “extremely wary” about mandating those kinds of disclosures.

But Mike Zaneis, general counsel of the trade group Interactive Advertising Bureau, expressed doubt about whether political campaigns should be exempt from making the same privacy-related disclosures as commercial advertisers. “I'm not sure I see a legitimate reason why political candidates shouldn't live by the same rules,” he said.


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