Could Digital Threats Keep Dems Out of Power in 2024?

The Intercept, the progressive newspaper, is reporting that two digitally-focused companies at the forefront of Democratic campaigns, known as NGP VAN and EveryAction, have been taken over by a British private equity firm and are laying off employees in large numbers.

As a former Democratic Member of Congress, and someone who continues to be actively involved in Democratic politics and campaigns, this is worrisome news. A foreign private equity firm has taken these companies over and is going to be focused on their bottom line, not Democratic victories. Understand, these two companies – NGP VAN and EveryAction – are at the heart of nearly every Democratic campaign from local races to Congress and even the White House.

NGP VAN and EveryAction keep massive digital lists of registered Democrats and help campaigns both fundraise from and reach these voters through emails, text messages, personal visits, phone calls from volunteers, advertisements, and numerous other digital tools.

Without question, this situation is a serious concern that requires the leaders of the Democratic Party to get involved and ensure that these two companies are fully functioning leading into the 2024 elections. We cannot afford another Donald Trump presidency, so a British private equity firm can reap massive profits.

Another digital challenge on the immediate horizon for Democrats, is a threat to a company that Democratic campaigns work with to leverage geolocation data and analytics. Understand, these data and analytical tools effectively reach the growingly important millennial voter and suburban women. Specifically, digital and mobile advertising enables candidates to target voters, guide their grassroots outreach, and maximize their fundraising efforts. These digital assets helped ensure that the Republican “red wave” never materialized in the most recent midterms.

What makes these data and analytics firms successful – their ability to track people and understand their habits – also creates challenges. They track people using their mobile devices. You can see why this data would be useful to campaigns; Democrats could target people at universities, Republicans could target people who attend church weekly.

This data and analytics are typically – and legitimately – used by corporations to advertise, or by political campaigns to urge people to vote. But, this data is not protected by any federal or state laws and in response, some Democratic members of Congress have raised the alarm that this data could potentially be used by law enforcement in states that have outlawed abortion to prosecute women who have visited an abortion clinic.

Likely buoyed by the concerns of those Democratic lawmakers, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has decided to sue one data and analytics company called Kochava. The FTC alleges that by selling data tracking people, Kochava is enabling others to identify individuals and exposing them to threats of stigma, stalking, discrimination, job loss, and even physical violence.

Whether or not data and analytics firms do a good job of self-policing to ensure that the data is only being marketed and sold to legitimate advertisers or political campaigns is hard to say.

But the real problem is that there needs to be federal guidelines created through legislation that outlines how these data and analytics firms should operate. This process will allow these tech companies to have clear guidelines about what they can, and cannot do, under the law.

After all, we don’t allow consumer product companies to pick and choose which safety regulations they follow. No, we have strict regulatory frameworks that tell them exactly what they can, and cannot do – and we hold them accountable to obeying those rules.

But the FTC is trying to create a regulatory framework through litigation by alleging that Kochava is violating an FTC rule, “which prohibits unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.” The FTC is stretching the definition of this rule in order to crack down on Kochava and set a legal precedent.

Democrats should take a long hard look at this lawsuit; geolocation data is another digital tool Democrats use to win elections. Allowing the FTC to create federal guidelines through the courts, rather than Congress passing a law to empower the FTC to regulate data and analytics companies is a serious mistake.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the level of insight Facebook, Google, and other tech companies have over our data and personal lives. It is time Congress reigned in these companies, and ensured there are strict, federal guidelines regulating how corporations use data and analytics.