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A Privacy Shield Against the Campaigns

By Shaun Dakin
Saturday, September 13, 2008

While John McCain and Barack Obama have plenty to fight about, there is at least one thing that they agree on: Voters who interact with their campaigns have no privacy rights.

What does this mean?

It's simple: Voters do not have the right to opt out of unwanted campaign communications, either online or off-line. Voters don't have the right to decide who will contact them or how they will be contacted by the presidential campaigns.

This invasion of the voters' privacy is bipartisan. Republicans do it. Democrats do it. Heck, even Libertarians do it.

This week, I received an e-mail from the Obama campaign that had the subject line: "Your Neighbors." Intrigued, I opened the message and learned that the campaign was launching a sophisticated program called "Neighbor-to-Neighbor" that makes "it easier than ever to connect with potential supporters in your community by phone or door-to-door." It continues: "Neighbor-to-Neighbor gives you the option to make phone calls or knock on doors -- the choice is yours."

The choice may be yours, but what about your neighbors, who may not want you to bother them at their homes?

This new program is both tech-cool and privacy-rights-scary. When I clicked through to myBarackObama.com, I was able to create "walk lists" using a Google map showing me exactly where potential Obama supporters near me live. The Web site provided the names, addresses and phone numbers of these targeted neighbors and offered a prompt for printing out the list. The last step? Log back in and record the results of your "door-to-door" conversations with voters.

I don't know about you, but I do not want my neighbors knocking on my door asking me whom I'm going to vote for. I certainly do not want my name, address and phone number printed on a Google map for the world to see. And, without a doubt, I do not want anyone calling me at home during dinner.

This is an invasion of privacy, because these voters never explicitly gave their permission to have themselves targeted in a database that invites their neighbors to walk "door to door" to try to persuade them to vote for a particular candidate.

When I tried to opt out of this tool, I learned that while I could opt out of campaign e-mail spam, there was no way that I could quickly, securely and comprehensively opt out of voter communications that I do not want to receive.

John McCain's Web site is much the same: It provides no mechanism for voters to opt out of unwanted communications other than e-mail.

What can be done?

As a spokesperson for millions of voters inundated by political campaigns, I have testified this year before the Senate Rules Committee in support of the Robocall Privacy Act. Our members report receiving as many as 15 robocalls a day during election season. Mothers have their babies awakened from naps. Night-shift workers who sleep during the day can't get the rest they need. Seniors and others fear that a health emergency could occur while their phone is tied up.

While commercial organizations are required by law to respect the privacy rights of consumers, politicians at the federal level and in all but a few states have exempted themselves from these laws. More than 160 million phone numbers have been placed on the National Do Not Call Registry, which requires commercial organizations to stop calling consumers within 30 days of those consumers listing their numbers. Political campaigns will call many of those 160 million numbers with impunity this fall. Why should commercial companies be required by law to stop invading the privacy of potential customers while politicians are allowed to do whatever they wish to reach potential voters?

To answer this question, candidates usually cite the First Amendment -- the right to speak freely as part of the our nation's vital democratic process. That might be a legitimate criticism of an outright ban but not of a system in which voters are given the choice to opt out of unwelcome communications.

Thus, the real reason for their personal exemptions is obvious: Politicians write the laws, and politicians like regulation only when it applies to someone else.

The time has come for a Voter Privacy Bill of Rights built on a single, straightforward principle: Voters should have the right to opt out of all direct political communications that they do not want to receive. Period.

The writer is chief executive and founder of Citizens for Civil Discourse, a nonprofit group that has launched the National Political Do Not Contact Registry at StopPoliticalCalls.org.

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