Millions of Americans who are already trying to fight off unwanted electronic mail from direct marketers are about to get deluged by another source: politicians and lobbying groups.
For the first time, a nationwide list of registered voters has been cross-referenced with multiple lists of e-mail addresses collected from magazine subscribers, catalogue shoppers, online poll participants and the like. The result is that legislators, candidates for office and interest groups can buy more than 25 million e-mail addresses of registered voters and contact them at will.
"This is the next generation of campaign strategies," said Roger Alan Stone, chief executive of Advocacy Inc., the D.C. cyber-consultancy that helped create the new product. (He is not the well-known Republican consultant of the same name).
But privacy advocates are appalled by the development. They see Stone's enterprise as dangerously intrusive and potentially harmful to the public's confidence in government. "What we're talking about here is political spam," said Pam Fielding, co-author of "The Net Effect: How Cyberadvocacy is Changing the Political Landscape."
Direct-mail marketers have long used voter registrations to locate street addresses and then send what's often called junk mail. But the pairing of voter registrations with e-mail addresses is new and involves the use of what's widely considered to be private information. Personal e-mail addresses are not as available as street addresses are, and they are acquired for this use without the owner's explicit consent.
In addition, e-mails can be sent in such large numbers and at so little cost that voters can be repeatedly targeted. The mailings can be tailored to voters' personal, even intimate, information. Advocacy Inc., for instance, can easily sort its e-mail lists by political party, voting frequency, age, gender, ethnicity and geography right down to neighborhood.
"Many constituents are likely to be incensed at such minute targeting; to them it will feel a lot like Big Brother is watching," Fielding said.
"We've been moving toward this for a long time," said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an Internet watchdog group. "But most Americans still don't realize how frequently their information is sold to the highest bidder and that politicians are now operating in that same marketplace."
Other leaders in electronic lobbying have decided against putting together a similar list for fear of sparking voter outrage. For example, Aristotle International Inc., which maintains a 50-state voter registration file, "has repeatedly declined arrangements that would even appear to compromise privacy or utilize deceptive e-mail marketing," said Dean Aristotle Phillips, the company's president. "Given the pervasiveness of spam, responsible campaigns, organizations and vendors reject the deceptive methods of spammers."
Until now, reputable owners of e-mail databases have refused to sell their addresses unless the buyer could demonstrate a direct connection to potential future recipients. For instance, lobbying groups could legitimately get the e-mail addresses of their members or donors. But Advocacy Inc. has argued that all registered voters have a clear interest in the democratic process and therefore are natural recipients of e-mails from any political organization.
Stone denies he's spamming anyone. Filters do not consider his company's e-mail to be spam because of the kind of servers that send it. He said e-mail recipients can click a link if they don't want to receive political communications. He also said that since he launched the lists this year, the complaint rate has been low. In addition, the service is so useful to his customers that he expects huge sales for the list. "Now any candidate or interest group can call us up and ask, 'How many Democratic voters do you have e-mails for in Ohio?' or 'How many non-registered voters do you have e-mails for in Florida between the ages of 18 and 24?' and we can get it to them in a couple hours," Stone said.
Business has been brisk. Stone said he has 60 clients, including 20 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 15 candidates for Congress, nine state or local ballot initiatives and a dozen interest groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Council for a Livable World. "We are adding at least 10 new clients a week and the pace is growing rapidly," he said.
"It could go like gangbusters" until Election Day, said William Daly, chairman of Voter Contact Services (VCS), the owner of the national, 155 million-person voter file that Stone's company matched with e-mail addresses. Daly reports that the e-mail list has been selling especially well in Ohio, New York, California and Hawaii.
MailFrontier Inc., an e-mail security and anti-spam company, estimates that more than 1.25 billion unsolicited political e-mails will be sent to registered voters this year, up from virtually none during the last presidential election. One reason is that commercially available e-mail databases are larger and can be tapped to produce substantially sized lists. E-mailing has also become more routine. In addition, said Deanne Phillips, a spokeswoman for MailFrontier, "It costs a lot less to send e-mails versus postal mail or TV advertising."