Industry changes may affect Democrats’ domination in digital politics

In 2012, Democrats are indisputably the party of tech savvy, of cutting-edge Web integration, of what one Mitt Romney adviser described as “whiz-bang turnout technologies.”

Now they have to face the possibility that chastened Republicans will start to learn their secrets. Some companies with progressive ties are playing with both sides, sparking tension over whether the left should care about making innovation democratic — or just keeping it Democratic.

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Change.org used to be explicitly progressive; it no longer is. Salsa Labs remains progressive, but some users fear a change in leadership will change that.

NationBuilder founders Jim Gilliam and Joe Green both came out of progressive causes and campaigns but see the software company they founded in 2011 as fulfilling a higher purpose. That’s not because it will help Democrats beat Republicans; NationBuilder is open to both. The social good is in leveling the playing field so that any candidate, no matter their budget or staff skill level, can have a professional digital operation.

“As someone who fought in the political trenches, I realized the most important thing wasn’t fighting the individual political battle but changing the whole political system,” Green said. “We believe America is a better place when everyone has the power to run a grass-roots campaign.”

Earlier this year the Republican State Leadership Committee inked a deal with NationBuilder to make its tools available to all 6,000 of its candidates. It was a major breakthrough for the company — and a sign for some Democrats that they should steer clear.

“Most of the tools for political organizing are partisan, so we have a technical advantage,” said Raven Brooks, executive director of Netroots Nation, an annual get-together for lefty digital activists. “Basically what this is doing is it’s throwing open that door and taking away that competitive advantage.”

One concern is that working with NationBuilder will help the company build better tools — that will then be used by Republicans. Some even argue that NationBuilder could share their data with Republicans, a fear Green calls “just crazy,” saying that if the firm handed proprietary information from one client to another it would immediately go out of business. Others just wonder whether NationBuilder will use all its data to make models it can sell to clients, as the Democratic firm Catalist does. The firm has promised that will never happen.

NationBuilder traces many of those concerns to NGP VAN, a behemoth in the Democratic data field used by everyone from the Obama campaign on down.

“NGP VAN sales people regularly lie about us, saying that we will share your data with Republicans,” the NationBuilder Web site reads. “This is not true.”

NGP VAN chief executive Stu Trevelyan dismisses those claims. NGP VAN recently launched its own affordable option for local candidates. But, he argued, Democratic wariness makes sense: “NationBuilder would like to have everybody forget what they’re trying to do, which is level the technology playing field, and the reality is that it’s not in progressives’ and Democrats’ interest to do that.”

Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic consultant, says he uses NationBuilder often for the campaigns he manages and doesn’t care who else does. “I think we’re better off with two parties competing over ideas, and I don’t think the tools have a damn thing to do with it,” he said.

Some progressives are worried that Democratic firms will follow in NationBuilder’s footsteps.

Of particular concern is Salsa Labs, which specializes in online organizing and communications tools for nonprofits. In October, co-founder and chief executive Chris Lundberg was ousted by the board of directors. He was replaced by Scott Stouffer, who joined the company when the venture capital firm Edison Ventures invested in Salsa last year.

“How long before Salsa takes on its first right-wing candidate or group?” the other co-founder, April Pederson, wrote in an
e-mail to staff members after the overthrow. “How long before the litmus test we’ve used to evaluate potential clients disappears?” While she and Lundberg own a majority stake in the company, they no longer have control.

The new Salsa leadership has repeatedly said that there will be no change in mission, and that the staff shake-up was strictly organizational. The Web site’s “About Us” section still commits to “basically progressive values.”

Stouffer said that the changes were made for internal, organizational reasons and that a shift in mission wouldn’t even make business sense.

“A large number of our clients are very progressive nonprofits,” Stouffer said. “A large number of our employees are passionate about progressive causes. For us to migrate away from that, not only would we we alienate our customer base, we would alienate a whole lot of our employees.”

Pedersen, who resigned from the board after the shake-up, isn’t convinced. “Salsa has to say that to maintain their current client base in the short term,” she said. At least one client, FitzGibbon Media, has stopped working with Salsa in the wake of the change.

Part of the angst stems of a recent shift that disturbed many on the left — Change.org’s decision to stop screening its sponsored campaigns.

Change.org started as a progressive blog, before evolving into a user-generated petition Web site. Any individual can submit a petition for free. Nonprofits and companies can pay to advertise in the form of sponsored petitions.

For years, the site had a policy of accepting only petitions that support “fairness, equality, and justice” and banning those that “violate these values, support discriminatory policies, or seek private corporate benefit that undermines the common good.”

In October, that changed. Now the advertising guidelines ban only “hate, violence or discrimination.” Sponsored petitions are taken from groups that many progressives deem anathema, like the education reform group StudentsFirst and the business group Fix the Debt.

Change.org staff say the shift isn’t so incendiary. Like NationBuilder, Change.org sees itself as a champion of small-d democracy. Getting involved in debates over what constitutes “fairness, equality and justice” isn’t part of that mission.

“We want to focus on building the world’s best tools for citizen empowerment, not on making subjective decisions about advertisers that would put our open platform in the middle of controversial disputes,” said Change.org spokesman Benjamin Joffe-Walt.

CORRECTION: This article originally made reference to the Republican State Legislative Committee. The group’s title is the Republican State Leadership Committee.

 
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