Tag Archives: USA Votes Inc

Data Mining and Privacy Concerns at WashingtonVotes.org

WashingtonVotes.org is a website being sponsored and promoted in Washington state as a way to empower citizens to take a more active role in government. The website says it is free and nonpartisan. However its Washington State promoter and sponsor, the Washington Policy Center, is ideologically right wing and has an ideological agenda that is anti-government regulation and pro free market business interests.

The Washington Policy Center is a member of the national State Policy Network which Source Watch characterizes as “a professional service organization for the “state-based free market think tank movement.”

Visiting the Washington Policy Center’s website let you see what some of their recent action agenda has been.

They recommended repeal of Washington State’s inheritance tax which Washington voters rejected last year.
They supported land use policies like Oregon’s measure 37 to compensate property owners for zoning changes. Voters also rejected that proposal.

They opposed banning PBDE’s – toxic flame retardants urging that Washington state not adopt a “precautionary” approach to environmental hazards. The Washington State Legislature just passed a ban on PBDE’s.
They opposed stricter air emissions standards for cars. The Legislature passed a measure to follow California’s lead to reduce air pollution.
They questioned the validity of recent global warming impacts reported in Washington State.

So what is their interest in setting up and maintaining a website that allows voters and citizens to access information about the Washington State Legislature? Isn’t this a good thing they are doing, helping citizens to be more informed on what the Washington State Legislature is doing?

In my recent post “WashingtonVotes.org Lacks Privacy Policy” I raised a serious question about whether or not the website is being used to collect and mine user data from unsuspecting users for information. I contend that it is. Reading their “terms of use” posted on the site says that a private entity, USA Votes, Inc actually owns the site and that, in their own words

“By posting comments, inputting data, or engaging in any other form of communication on, with, or through the Washington Votes web site, you are granting USA Votes, Inc. a royalty-free, perpetual, non-exclusive, irrevocable, unrestricted, worldwide license to:Use, copy, sublicense, adapt, transmit, publicly perform or display any such communication. Sublicense or transfer to third parties the unrestricted right to exercise any of the foregoing rights granted with respect to the communication.
The foregoing grants shall include the right to exploit any proprietary rights in such communication, including but not limited to rights under copyright, trademark. “

The WashingtonVotes.org site is patterned after MichiganVotes.org which has an almost identical “terms of use” agreement. What is curious here is that both Washington and Michigan have official state government Legislative websites which detail privacy protections for people using the state websites. I previously wrote about Washington’s.

Reading Michigan’s official state site privacy policy points out even clearer what it is you are giving up by using these websites that are privately run and owned by “free market” right wing think tank interests. You are agreeing to give up your privacy and letting information about your legislative and voting and political interests and positions be sold or used by those on the right wing for their own financial, political or ideological gain.

Here is the Michigan State Legislative website privacy statement:

“Types of Information Collected Online
Information collected online is usually defined as being either anonymous information (data that cannot be tied back to a specific individual) or personally identifiable information (data that tell us who you are, such as your name, address, e-mail address).
Anonymous Information Unless you provide additional information, the Michigan Legislature website collects only the following anonymous information as you browse through the website:
The domain name and browser used to access the Internet (e.g., aol.com, if you are using an America Online account); The date and time of visits; The pages visited; and The address of the website visited immediately prior to visiting the Michigan Legislature website We collect this information for statistical purposes(e.g., to measure site traffic) and to help us make our site more useful to visitors.

Personally Identifiable Information You do not have to provide the Michigan Legislature website with personally identifiable information to visit our website.The Michigan Legislature website collects personally identifiable information on visitors in the following ways:

Optional User Registration.You are sharing personally identifiable information when you sign up to become a registered user. When you register, it is not necessary to provide us with either your true name or your e-mail address. We request this information because, if you lose or forget your User ID or Password, this information will assist us in helping you regain access to your account. If you become a registered user, you will have complete access to your account information, and may change or delete any registration information that you choose.
Correspondence. If you contact the Michigan Legislature website by e-mail, we may keep a record of that correspondence as long as needed to respond to your question or to fulfill the stated purpose of the communication. However, we do not collect the e-mail addresses of users who communicate with the site’s administrators via e-mail.

Use of Cookies

The Michigan Legislature website does not use cookies.

Disclosure of Personally Identifiable Information The Michigan Legislature website does not disclose, give, sell, or transfer any personally identifiable information (to the extent given) to third parties, unless: We need to share the information to provide the service or information you have requested; or We are authorized to do so bylaw (e.g., to respond to subpoenas, court orders, or legal process).”

Contrasting the WashingtonVotes.org and MichiganVotes.org “terms of use” with their respective state’s official Legislative website’s privacy protections points out the lack of privacy protections on the USAVotes websites, which also include MinnesotaVotes.org, KentuckyVotes.org and UtahVotes.org.
From an organizational sense a website like WashingtonVotes.org can provide a lot of valuable information to the sponsors. The site is set up to encourage people to register for specific services, including being e-mailed about specific bills and preparing legislative watch lists and posting comments on bills. The site lets the sponsors know what e-mails are being sent to legislators. It lets them know what bills people are searching for by bill number, keyword or one of 50 categories. It lets them know what bills members of the media are tracking if they register and can track IPO’s even if they don’t register.

In addition the site let’s a right wing think tank prioritize what bills it wants to emphasize to the public. For example in searching by category like environment a series of 60 bills came up. They were not by bill number or date of action. Deciding which bills come up when is a subtle form of controlling access to legislative information.

Likewise, some 25 newspaper buy services of WashingtonVotes.org on voting information on the top five 5 bills each week. Again a right wing free market think tank is determining what is chosen and printed in newspapers.

One has to admit that WashingtonVotes is a clever way for the right wing to try to influence the legislative agenda and information voters access in Washington State. Re-packaging and promoting the information from the official Washington State Legislative website at http://www.leg.wa.gov/ and posting it on WashingtonVotes.org gives them a pulse on what is happening with both constituents and citizens while also controlling information access.

The Washington Policy Center is cleverly using the WashingtonVotes.org website to enhance it’s image as a good government group. But its lack of a privacy policy that protects its users from information on them being sold or used to promote right wing causes undercuts its credibility as an unbiased player in the political arena.

Until and unless the Washington Policy Center, WashingtonVotes.org and USAVotes Inc publicly disavow any collecting of personal information and sale or use of such information for either private monetary or political or ideological gain I urge people to not use their website. Almost all of the information is available at the official Washington State Legislative website at http://www.leg.wa.gov/. You don’t need to have some right wing snoop group invade your privacy and use or sell information on you to others.