While the notion that information wants to be free has driven many movements around government-financed data and research, it pays to remember that covert political maneuvering and paying for influence are as old as civilization. And some of these forces don’t want information to be free.
When some of the most well-funded corporations and interest groups also have a commercial stake in supporting transparency, you have all the ingredients for a real battle.
Advances in networked data technologies in the new media and research sectors have made new kinds of relational analysis possible. Tim Berners-Lee’s 2009 TED Talk centers on the creation of the web of linked data—a shadow layer that will underlie the web of content, the principal vehicle of global information exchange with which we are all familiar today.
Networked data is intrinsic to the semantic web and to data visualization, which propose alternate ways to describe, associate meaning with, and reveal relationships between data entities. Early examples, built from publicly available government data, can be found on project pages from Open PSI (in the UK) and Sunlight Labs (in the US).
The power of analysis that can be derived from the semantic Web and visualizations of linked data relies entirely upon the accuracy and scope of the data itself—which is where the DISCLOSE Act (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections) comes in.
Earlier this year, a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. FEC, opened the door to allow corporations and unions to use funds to impact federal elections. The decision is expected to create a large new stream of corporate and union money into elections, and much of it may disappear behind the veil of 501(c) vehicles with patriotic names and questionable agendas.
The DISCLOSE Act requires that these campaign related expenditures be disclosed in a timely and effective manner.
Without the DISCLOSE Act, more money will be entering the system and less will be traceable. Yet access to accurate data about political spending is absolutely essential to those seeking to reveal chains of influence that in the legislative process.
The Difference for Data Publishers
CQ Press, formerly the books division of Congressional Quarterly Inc. and now a subsidiary of SAGE, is preparing to release First Street, a political data platform for academic and professional markets scheduled to launch in Q1 2011. The project was designed to revolutionize CQ Press’ contact directories business by applying linked data technologies to surface relationships between issues, votes, people, organizations, and topics on Capitol Hill.
Through a unique combination of proprietary and public content, CQ Press has created a powerful online tool to help lobbyists and researchers quickly zero-in on connections between data points that might otherwise remain hidden. Users can cut through layers of noise and isolate significant correlates between votes and funding from corporate interests — providing a behind-the-rhetoric look at how politics in DC really work.
In the political spectrum, if comprehensive and reliable campaign finance data are made publicly available and can be prevented from being hidden behind a shell game of 501(c)s and 527s, technology platforms like First Street and those being created at Sunlight Labs have the potential to revolutionize the political process through transparency. If data are not made public, some of the important promise of these platforms will not be realizable.
Meredith McGehee, a lobbyist and consultant who has spent a portion of her career with Common Cause and who currently works with the Campaign Legal Center, indicates that, while the tools are new, the battle for honest information about political contributions and campaign ads is not:
At Common Cause, we spent years trying to draw these connections by following the money trail. We had a lot of opposition. Corporate interests did not want the public to have that level of transparency.
Several recent Supreme Court decisions, led by Citizens United, have shifted the ground when it comes to regulation of money and politics. Even as the fight now centers on disclosure, the current effort is like a jig saw puzzle. We’re fighting over just getting more pieces of information, many of which special interests are doing their utmost to keep hidden in their own pockets. It’s important to get as many pieces put together to get an accurate picture of what’s going on as millions are being spent to influence how power is apportioned and wielded in Congress and state houses across the country.
About the DISCLOSE Act
The DISCLOSE Act (H.R. 5175) has already passed in the House and has been introduced in the Senate (S. 3295) by Senators Leahy, Feingold, and Schumer to “limit the damage done by the Supreme Court’s misguided Citizens United v. FEC decision and combat the new, unregulated corporate influence over elections.” Among its provisions is a requirement that corporations disclose the names of their top five donors to political ads. That provision is a direct response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in January in the Citizens United vs. FEC case, which overturned much of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law.
From the Campaign Legal Center, an advocacy and litigation organization in the nonpartisan ethics and campaign finance reform:
With all the kerfuffle around the DISCLOSE Act, it is important to remember why this measure is necessary in the first place. 8 in 10 Americans disapproved of the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC which opened up virtually bottomless corporate and union treasury funds for spending on political advertising. Much of the new influx of money is expected to be laundered through shady groups with patriotic names or even trade associations. The goal for many campaign finance reform opponents is complete anonymity for donors.
On June 24, following the passage of DISCLOSE in the House of Representatives, Ellen Miller, Co-Founder of the Sunlight Foundation, sent an email to supporters urging them to join the “Public = Online Campaign” by signing a pledge (http://PublicEqualsOnline.com) to demonstrate that “people across the country care about an open, transparent government which makes all its public information available online and in real-time.”
Who Opposes DISCLOSE and Why
A broad swath of Washington special interest groups oppose the DISCLOSE legislation, claiming it is a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been the most vocal opponent of the legislation. However, when the National Rifle Association (NRA) announced its opposition, House leadership determined that they no longer had enough votes to pass the bill and created an exemption for a few long-established national organizations with more than a half million dues paying members including the NRA, AARP, and the Sierra Club. The so-called “NRA Amendment” has led to additional opposition from organizations to too small to qualify for the exemption and many of whom had pushed for a blanket exemption for all 501 (c)(4) organizations.
The Conflict for Big Tech
Technology and new media companies with lobbying interests may ultimately find themselves faced with competing priorities. The potential conflict for companies such as O’Reilly and UBM TechWeb, who produce the Gov 2.0 Expo, and Google, Wikipedia, Craigslist, and Omidyar Network, whose executives sit on the Sunlight Foundation Boards, is this — financial transparency is not just an ethics issue for organizations that have a stake in creating web services that provide insight into government and political processes, it could make or break this new class of data platforms. Money is the oil that keeps the machines running in Washington. Without financial data, which provides the ability to correlate the flow of money to the flow of influence (and action), the puzzle will be missing key pieces.
Media and tech companies stand to gain if DISCLOSE is passed because they will be the architects of an emerging class of utilities built upon data made public through the Open Government Initiative. Many are already aligned with DISCLOSE and Sunlight, which computes commercially and philosophically, due to the alignment of interests in providing free access to millions, if not billions, of data records.
Technology companies are rapidly beefing up their lobbying presence on Capitol Hill and are as susceptible as any other corporate interests to seeking access to lawmakers by virtue of their deep pockets — and to currying political favor behind the scenes. Secrecy and dollars are both primary levers in the lobbying game. DISCLOSE is where the rubber hits the road between transparency and lobbying.
Where will big technology companies — some of the biggest emerging political influencers and donors — split their interests?
Author disclosure: Alix Vance was Executive Director of the Reference Information Group at CQ Press from 2007-2009 where she led strategic development for First Street. Her husband is Director of Communications and Research at the Campaign Legal Center.