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All Online Politics is Personalized, Or May Soon Be

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, October 25 2010

As online political advertising and email targeting mature, you can imagine that campaigns would really enjoy knowing a great deal about what you do online, and what it says about you as a person -- and a voter. The Wall Street Journal's Emily Steel does a deep dive today into the company RapLeaf, and addresses what it does to aide campaigns by matching real names and email addresses with what can be gleaned about us from the web:

In this year's hotly contested midterm elections, some political organizations are tapping RapLeaf's technology. With traditional postal mailing lists, "We used to bombard their house with mail. Now we can bombard their house with online ads," says Robert Willington, the Republican online campaign strategist who worked on behalf of Mr. Bender's New Hampshire campaign.

RapLeaf helped Mr. Bender's campaign target likely Republican voters with ads online. (Mr. Bender, who confirms working with RapLeaf, lost the election.)

Democratic strategist Chris Lehane says he used, and liked using, RapLeaf in defeating California's Prop 17 on auto-insurance rates. He says he's thinking about using it against Meg Whitman.

Of course, what RapLeaf does to match bits of digital information together to form a picture of a particular person in order to shape their online experience raises questions about what we mean when we talk about user privacy. "Rapleaf wants to safely personalize experiences for people," Wrote CEO Auren Hoffman in a blog post yesterday, "and one of the discussion points over the next few weeks should be how data companies like Rapleaf can enable personalization in the most responsible way." For its part, the company has written recently about working to figure out how to best protect user privacy while still unlocking the enormous potential there is for campaigns and companies alike in knowing you as well as your own ma does, if not better.

Reading what RapLeaf has to say about privacy, an intriguing dynamic pops up. Companies like them seem to think that normal people are worried about other real-life humans knowing what they do online. But there seems a decent chance that what really weirds out many people is that all that about them can be known at all.