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The Case for Political Software as a Commodity, Not a Weapon

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, July 13 2012

It's the people, stupid.

That's the message that some progressives have for colleagues like Netroots Nation's Raven Brooks, who called for a boycott of the political software startup NationBuilder, and Matt Browner Hamlin, who says he'll stop recommending the software to clients, all because NationBuilder has struck a deal to provide software to Republican candidates for state legislatures.

A June deal makes NationBuilder the exclusive online platform for the Republican State Leadership Committee, which backs statehouse hopefuls across the country. The deal will give the RSLC a custom version of NationBuilder, the "GOPro Edition," with "unique website design themes, targeted voter data, and increased email list size," according to the company's announcement at the time.

Some progressives are upset that a company founded by two people with progressive pedigrees — even one like NationBuilder, which has been avowedly nonpartisan from the get-go — are doing business with a group working for ends exactly opposite those of the left.

Others rolled their eyes at the thought that software can be inherently partisan and are pushing back against the idea of a boycott.

Open government activist and entrepreneur Joshua Tauberer said he was "appalled" after he learned of the attack on NationBuilder yesterday. He wrote recently that he is planning to change the terms of service on GovTrack, which provides data on actions in Congress for a wide variety of web applications, to block visitors referred by Netroots Nation's sponsors. He's also requiring users who make the data available in bulk to others to carry the same requirement.

Tauberer told developers on GovTrack's mailing list:

"GovTrack, and most tools that reuse its database, is a nonpartisan tool that has played an important role in political activism over the last several years on both sides of the political aisle. It is astonishing to me that anyone would think that technology infrastructure should choose sides. Especially since it appears that the sponsors of past Netroots Nations conferences have been users of nonpartisan political technology platforms like GovTrack. If they are going to boycott tools like GovTrack, they certainly won't notice the change to GovTrack's license terms.

And he says he's spent a little bit of time hunting for a list of those sponsors.

"This is the first time that someone's called what our community does 'evil,'" Tauberer said in an e-mail. "I don't take that lightly. PCCC's Rosenbaum had better stand behind that if he is going to be so brash. Is he going to take the links to GovTrack off of the PCCC web site? Because right now those links support the right's ability to get the same information."

For Clay Johnson, a co-founder of Blue State Digital, the company that went on to provide technology and consulting to President Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 re-election efforts, the boycott idea is just misguided. Brooks suggested Thursday that NationBuilder selling to Republicans would be like Blue State Digital doing the same thing.

"The idea that software is somehow winning elections is crazy, it's absolutely insane," Johnson said. "If software could win elections on its own, then software would be president."

"The bench of people that progressives have through organizations like the New Organizing Institute are the real asset that's being created, not some kind of progressive software," he added.

Johnson noted that features that used to be unique to deep-pocketed presidential campaigns are now ubiquitous. For example, he said, in 2004, Blue State Digital would routinely charge clients $5,000 just to set up the ability to process credit cards online.

Steve Ofner, founder of left-leaning web design and development firm Liberal Art and another Blue State Digital alumnus, agreed. Ofner helped to build the software platform that eventually became, which Obama's grassroots supporters used to push the candidate to victory in 2008.

"Nobody makes a big deal about Convio or," he said, referring to other platforms that enable organizations to manage their relationships with large groups of people.

At the heart of these customer relationship management tools are three generic ideas upon which anyone can build: communications tools, databases and forms.

Ofner's firm helps campaigns, advocacy groups and political strategy firms build web sites. His firm builds web sites for clients using NationBuilder or Salsa Labs software depending on their needs. He admits that he was reluctant to use NationBuilder initially because he thought the system was too "simplistic" and because of its avowedly non-partisan nature. But then he said he realized it was foolish.

Nevertheless, he and some of his colleagues were turned off when they discovered that Joe the Plumber uses NationBuilder, too. They dealt with that by creating their own progressive discussion group instead of sharing tips, digital strategies and tricks in NationBuilders' general forums.

"To the extent that it bothered us we created a progressive-only forum on NationBuilder to segregate the knowledge that we did gain from the process from the other side of the aisle," he said.

Besides how-to knowledge, campaigns sometimes also share data with one another — and how Brooks, from Netroots Nation, thought NationBuilder would enable that sharing seemed to be a significant part of his problem with the company. The equivalency Brooks sought to draw between Blue State and NationBuilder is overblown, Johnson, Blue State's co-founder, said.

What's more, in an interview Thursday, Gilliam explained that the way Republican campaigns using NationBuilder will be able to share data is not going to be exclusive: The company will soon enable a new feature that will let any client using the platform to share any information they wanted with anyone else on a fine-grained basis, he said.

As political software becomes more powerful and its use more ubiquitous, people on both sides of the aisle are likely to continue to ponder whether the innovation they foster might also bring aid and comfort to the enemy. Progressive technologists are still debating what the new orthodoxy should be with respect to NationBuilder. But Johnson, for one, says Brooks hasn't framed the conversation in a fair way.

"NationBuilder is a platform business, and not a professional services organization," said Johnson. "They make no editorial decisions."