March 23, 2004 2:35 PM PST

FundRace shows neighbors' political donations

Neighborly nosiness is extending into the political realm this campaign year, thanks to an Internet service that gives people a window into donations made next door.

FundRace is a 4-month-old Web site that measures political contributions across the country, with color-coded maps illustrating the Democratic or Republican affiliations in many cities and states.

Last week, it was updated to reveal a more personal picture of the political landscape. It lets people search by name or address to find contributors to candidates. A search returns lists of donors' names, addresses and professions, as well as the amount of money donated and the candidate who benefited.

For example, a query on the last name "Dukakis" shows that Michael Dukakis, a professor at Northeastern University and a former U.S. presidential candidate, gave $500 to the political camp of John Kerry, the Democratic front-runner for president in 2004. Actor Ben Affleck contributed $2,000 to Wesley Clark. Microsoft founder Bill Gates donated $2,000 to President George W. Bush.

Described by some people as "creepy," the service is perfectly legal. It draws on public information provided online by the Federal Election Commission, which collects the personal information of anyone who contributes "hard money" (more than $200) to a campaign. That information is courtesy of new campaign finance reform laws that require disclosure of contributions.

The campaign finance law, sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., was signed by President Bush in March 2002 to end unlimited contributions from corporations and wealthy individuals that might be laundered by political parties for federal candidates.

"We were thinking it's kind of funny that people want to have political influence but remain private," said Jonah Peretti, director of research and development at Eyebeam, the technology-focused nonprofit organization that launched the project last November and currently funds it. "The whole thrust of the McCain-Feingold legislation is that it's fine to contribute money, but the public has a right to know."

"FundRace creates a debate about how the political process works, and how money and politics relate," Peretti said.

Despite the political transparency the site affords, it has drawn complaints from people who would rather not see their addresses, employers and political affiliations open to the public, according to the Web site's operators.

It has also once again raised questions about the Internet's ability to give people easy access to otherwise hard-to-get public records. One the one hand, privacy advocates argue that it can expose information that people consider private, opening them up to the growing threat of identity theft. On the other hand, advocates of electronic access to public records contend that it can help citizens better track the inner workings of the political process.

"This Web site certainly shows the conflict of running clean elections versus personal privacy about political matters," said Richard Smith, a security expert and former chief privacy officer of the Privacy Foundation.

Opensecrets.org, run by the Center for Responsive Politics, based in Washington, D.C., has been offering a similar service for more than a year.

A government system called Public Access to Court Electronic Records prompted more discussion in recent years. Through the system, the public can download and print federal court case files for 7 cents a page. Some of those case files, previously available in print form at courthouses, can contain sensitive personal information, such as Social Security numbers, credit card numbers or medical information.

Google has also raised hackles with its ability to turn up otherwise cloistered data on the Internet. As the search engine has become the way more and more people find information online, it has also become a visible target for copyright complaints and allegedly infringing links.

John Johnson, a member of the family that started Johnson & Johnson, launched Eyebeam, FundRace's developer, in the 1990s. Eyebeam explores the intersection of technology, new media, arts and culture, and many of its projects reflect that.

For example, it created GoogleRace.com last year as a tool to measure public opinion online, as it relates to the presidential candidates. Similarly, the impetus for developing FundRace's was to measure the groundswell of monetary grassroots support for Howard Dean, according to Eyebeam research fellow and FundRace creator Mike Frumin. "We were curious to see the differences in the candidates in terms of how they're raising money," he said.

The site also shows how the candidates spend money. For example, President Bush spent $132,500 at the New York Sheraton on July 1, according to the site. In contrast, John Kerry spent $14,000 at the San Diego Hilton in March.

Protecting people's privacy, Frumin said, falls second to providing transparency and political accountability to fundraising. The Web site merely levels the playing field for people to access already public data, he said.

The site has drawn about a million hits a day, or tens of thousands of unique Internet Protocol addresses, and many people write in to have their information removed. Frumin said he does not grant those requests. He added that many other people praise the service.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a free-speech advocacy group, said it does not have a position on whether records of political contributions should be public. But because they are, they should be readily available.

"If they're public, they're public," said Kevin Bankston, an attorney at the EFF. "It is a good thing...to make it easy for the average person to access them on the Internet."

 

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