Monday, January 19, 2009

Transparency vs. Privacy

Opponents of California's Proposition 8 have created a new website eightmaps.com which provides the names, home or work address of those individuals that donated money to the successful ballot initiative. Proposition 8, which was successfully passed during the 2008 election cycle, added the following language to California state Constitution, "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."

Frank Schubert, the campaign manager for Protect Marriage, a proponent of Proposition 8 expressed serious concerns over the launch of eightmaps.com. In an interview with the New York Times Schubert said, "giving these people [gay rights activitists] a map to your home or office leaves supporters of Proposition 8 feeling especially vulnerable. Really, it is chilling.”

As a result of these concerns, Protect Marriage, a pro Proposition 8 interest group, has filed a lawsuit in Sacramento's Federal District Court seeking an injunction against California state election laws that compels the release of names, addresses, occupations, and other personal information of donors of more than $100.

James Bopp Jr., a lawyer who filed the lawsuit on the behalf of Protect Marriage, said, “the cost of transparency cannot be discouragement of people’s participation in the process." Mr. Bopp further stated, “the highest value in the First Amendment is speech, and some amorphous idea about transparency cannot be used to subvert those rights.” In the filing, Mr. Bopp alleges there have been “death threats, acts of domestic terrorism, physical violence, threats of physical violence, vandalism of personal property, harassing phone calls, harassing e-mails, blacklisting and boycotts” against supporters of Proposition 8 identified via the eightmaps.com website.

In response to the lawsuit Shannon P. Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, asked, “do they want to hide something?” Further, according to the New York Times, "opponents of Proposition 8 have condemned any attacks on supporters, but noted that those claiming harassment are already protected by laws.

The administrator of eightmaps.com used data publicly available from a California state government website located here. Access to this data allowed the administrator to write a Google "mashup" which overlayed the data onto a Google Maps which may make the data more accessible to the average person.

Ironically, the administrator(s) of the eightmaps.com website has no such interest in revealing information about themselves and has choosen to register the website through Domains by Proxy Inc., a company that protects the privacy of website owners and administrators, by serving as a proxy during the domain registration process.

Discussion for Class

  • Using Solove's taxonomy of privacy as a guide what privacy harms, if any, are most pressing in this example?
  • Do you think there is a chilling effect if this type of information that identifies political affiliation is published?
  • Is increased transparency at odds with the privacy protections offered by the First amendment?
  • Should personally identifiable information be so easily accessible?
  • Should the administrator(s) of eightmaps.com be required to identify themselves?

4 comments:

Eric said...

Just found this online and wrote a blog post in response. Good luck in your class discussion.

http://marriageequalitynow.com/2009/01/19/donors-to-prop-8-become-homework-assignment-at-georgetown/

erin k said...

Reading this, the first thing I wondered was what people's response would be if the situation were reversed - i.e. information on opponents of Prop. 8 was collected and distributed. I feel as though most people would probably view this as blatant discrimination and the outrage would be greater.

However, more related to class, it reminded of a few specific parts of Solove's Areas of Harm to Privace, namely "increased accessibility" in the "Information Dissemination" category. Apparently this website was compiled using data already available to public, (and when I looked at the site, it is actually shockingly easy to find the names of people and amounts they donated). Technically, no more information is available then before - but it is far more accessible. The map itself is a little shocking, as it literally pinpoints donors as though you were mapquesting a Starbucks.

Because the information is succinctly compiled and could have been taken out of context, revealing at first glance only the name and donation amount, this could also be considered distortion.

However, I think that requiring the creators of eightmaps to identify themselves is somewhat irrelevant, since many other site creators, especially controversial ones, have chosen to remain anonymous. Matt Ivester, for example, created JuicyCampus but did not reveal his identity until coming to none other than Georgetown University to speak about his site, (which if anyone remembers, had ALOT of people upset).

Basically, although this website does seem to have been created with malicious intent, (for what purpose other than harrassment would one need this info?), the issue is not eightmaps itself. Because the information was already available, it is the main source of release that needs to be re-examined.

Ned said...

Erin,

Excellent work! You noted that the data behind the eightmaps.com website was already publicly available. You also noted that the eightmaps.com websites took this data and made it more accessible. The difference between availability and accessibility is a key point that we will discuss in greater detail in class.

ben b said...

I wonder to what degree the eightmaps site acts/would act as a catalyst for any kind of criminal behavior?

In other words, it seems to me that the kind of person who would be motivated enough to act on any malicious intent towards prop 8 donors would also be motivated enough to look up these public records themselves.

I realize this doesn't address any of the core privacy issues directly, but it does seem to me to have some practical value in determining whether anything should be done to the site or its creators.

In many ways, the core of this issue is less about privacy and more about our political system. To what degree does democracy require transparency? In many cases, I can see the value in making this information public (the way it is now, which allowed eightmaps to exist in the first place).

Imagine if the referendum had been on a matter of state budgeting - say, what company got to maintain all of CA's state highways. Voters might like to know if all of the largest donors were construction companies. What complicates the matter here is the fact that the issue being voted on is a social one, about which proponents of both sides feel very strongly.