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Digital democracy, technology and privacy

Digital Democracy, Technology and Privacy

Politicians customarily reach out to voters with a handshake and a smile. Thanks to interactive mobile technology and the broad market reach of social media, political glad-handing has recently gone virtual as campaigns contract autodial vendors to fill voter’s smartphone inboxes with email, voicemail and text messages. However for many citizens, political mobile campaigns are more nuisance than novelty.

Privacy vs Free Speech

Political campaign penetration of the Internet has expanded exponentially since the first political email in 1992. That’s why advocacy groups push legislators to seek ways to deal with the issue of digital democracy as campaigns test the limits of political freedom of speech and a citizen’s right to privacy.

The growth of mobile technology outpaces government efforts to create policy and legislate controls. According to MobileActive.org, 65% of Canadians and 74 % of all U.S. adults now own mobile phones, often using the cell phone as a primary contact. Smartphones allow users to access email, voicemail, text messages, download videos, and update social media sites. Savvy political campaign managers moved 10% of their ad budgets away from traditional media in 2008, according the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet, and put it towards Web access and the expanded calling universe of smartphones.

Robocalls as Political Campaign Ads

Telemarketing laws in both countries restrict unsolicited calls by giving consumers the option to place their numbers on do not call lists. States like Indiana, Arkansas, and Minnesota ban robocalls, while others, like Kansas and Wisconsin have robocall legislation pending. But most political solicitations in North America remain exempt from federal regulations as political calls fall outside the “telemarketing” definition.

SCOTUS Ruling Affects Political Advertising

Attempts to ban political calls has been viewed by some legislators, lobbyists, and activists, like James Bopp, Jr., as regulating against free speech. Bopp, general counsel at the James Madison Center for Free Speech, advocates dismantling spending rules for political campaigns. His efforts led to the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruling on campaign finance law(Citizens United vs. FEC, Jan 21, 2010) that grants corporations the right to fund political ads.

Mobile Phone Consumer Protection

Politicians now use the same highly targeted online advertising as corporations do, prompting advocacy groups in Canada and the U.S. to push government towards new ways to protect mobile phone privacy from an onslaught of automated robocalls, text or short message service (SMS) campaigns, mobile video ads, and interactive voice recognition (IVR) robo-polls.

The Robocall Privacy Act restricting all political robocalls, especially those abusive in design, has yet to pass U.S. Congress. But Shaun Dakin, founder and CEO of The National Political Do Not Call Registry, is not discouraged. “Corporations will use robocalls more and more,” said Dakin in an email interview with the author, “and the people will demand a solution.” The SCOTUS decision to open political ads to corporate support may backfire. “Since corporations will go after politicians, there may be an incentive for the politicians to stop all robocalls in the future to save their seats.”

Smartphone Technology Effective to Get Out the Vote

The effectiveness of mobile campaigns became apparent in the 2008 U.S. Presidential race, when Democratic party campaign managers utilized mobile technology to amass unprecedented voter participation. But GOP campaign directors were quick to respond. Over 620,000 e-mail to text messages were sent to mobile phones during the 2010 U.S. Senate campaign in Massachusetts, according to ccAdvertising, the “constituent research” and data acquisition company contracted to service the calls.

A ccAdvertising company press release reports 2.3 million calls went out to cell phones during the campaign, mobilizing 120,000 supporters of Republican candidate Scott Brown in a Get Out The Vote campaign. Brown won the election in a well-publicized political upset.

Voters Turned Off or Tuned In to Virtual Handshakes

Separate studies by Brandweek and Forrester Research show that over 75% of cell phone users are “turned off” by the notion of ads on their phones. But young, upwardly mobile voters have all but abandoned landlines and are more likely to respond to a cell phone solicitation. The link between corporate backer and campaign manager is certain to test voter acceptance of mobile campaigns and the virtual smartphone handshake.