Feb. 5, 2000
Politics and the Internet: They know how you'll vote
By John Aravosis
INTERNET campaign advertisements are all the rage. George W. Bush, John McCain and Al Gore all have them, and Bill Bradley recently launched a blitz of them. But people who care for privacy wonder about the targeting of such ads, and whether the political allegiances of surfers on the World Wide Web are being detected and made use of without their consent.
Attention is turning to Aristotle Publishing, whose clients include the Bush and McCain campaigns. Aristotle uses publicly available voter-registration records (the company says it has nearly all the country's 145m registered voters on file), and a proprietary computer model to help campaigns target web ads at people who are likely to vote for a particular party. Although voting records - which can include information on registered voters' names, addresses, telephone numbers, party affiliation and whether they voted in particular elections - have long been used to identify loyalists and help get out the vote, the Internet adds a troubling new dimension.
Websites often compile and share information on the browsing practices of net-users by means of a small electronic name-tag (a "cookie"). Each time you visit the site, the cookie identifies you, tracks what pages you visit and the data you enter, and records where you were before and where you are heading next. Such information can be aggregated into huge direct-marketing databases, creating a composite profile of an individual web-surfer's habits, often without his knowledge. Direct-marketers can then use these data to place targeted ads in front of him as he browses.
Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, says the ease of gathering information about voters in this way calls for a re-evaluation of the laws allowing public access to voting records. In the past, it was extremely hard to assemble a nationwide list. Campaign workers had to visit the office of the secretary of state in all 50 states, and sometimes even had to trek to individual counties, to photocopy voter lists. Computers and the Internet now make it child's play to find, and update, this information.
Aristotle's director of communications, Jay MacAniff, says the company uses the voter database only for people who have already agreed to receive commercial appeals online. He argues that the use of telephone banks, door-to-door pitches and direct mail by traditional campaigns poses a greater risk to voter privacy than a model that simply guesses your allegiances. Ordinary campaigns are left with a hard copy of the voter's name, address and telephone number, he points out, whereas neither Aristotle, nor any of its campaign clients, receives "any information whatsoever at all about the person who is served a banner [ad], it's completely anonymous."
Sceptics say that this does not entirely exonerate the campaigns. "If there's a Chinese wall over which campaigns don't care to look, that's still morally objectionable," says Jason Catlett of Junkbusters.com, an online watchdog. "If you're being surreptitiously identified as you browse the Web, that violates the expectation of most surfers that they're anonymous." It also could violate the expectation of voters who have not registered a party affiliation because they wish to keep their opinions private. Many people see disquieting shades of Big Brother in all this.
The Gore campaign has said that it will not hire Aristotle, or any online ad firm that raises concerns about privacy, although the campaign might use similar targeting techniques of its own. But is anyone's privacy really being violated? It is difficult to tell, because no one seems to know exactly what Aristotle, or the campaigns, are doing. Mr Catlett of Junkbusters says the dearth of such information is itself a problem, and a general openness is needed, especially about the handling of personal information. Aristotle retorts that if browsers are worried, they should simply turn their cookies off. But most web surfers have no clue how to do that; and cookies can serve useful purposes, such as remembering passwords.
Anyway, why put the burden on consumers? It is a violation of federal law for video-rental shops to reveal a customer's taste in films, yet no such law applies to websites. Perhaps one should.
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