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Progressives Decry Changes at Change.org

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, October 24 2012

The very public debate over where the lines should be drawn in the emerging business of technology tools for politics took a new turn this week when one of the highest profile companies in the industry decided to broaden its business base by looking beyond its network of largely progressive clients.

Some progressive activists in the United States howled in dismay Tuesday at the news that the online campaign-building organization Change.org would abandon its practice of picking and choosing advertisers and causes to support based on their alignment with the company's avowedly progressive background.

Change.org helps organizations to gain traction online for online petitions. Anyone can start a petition on its site, but the company also employs staff to help certain petitions gain more traction online by helping them with their messaging, and coaching petitioners with outreach strategies to make those petitions go viral. It also sells advertising space to organizations who can then float "sponsored petitions" alongside the other petitions on the site as a way to grow their audience and generate leads on prospective supporters for the campaigns that they're working on. Someone signing a petition related to animal cruelty, for instance, might then see a sponsored petition from an organization paying to have their name and cause appear to people interested in that topic.

Company clients include Amnesty International, Credo Wireless, and the Sierra Club. Change.org has 300 clients paying $15 million so far this year, according to a recent profile in Forbes.

Up until this week, the company had only accepted causes to coach and paying advertisers on a case-by-case basis. Now the company wants to throw open its doors to everyone across the political spectrum -- including, in the United States, Republican causes along with subscribers to most other political parties. This is a big change for a company that has built its brand on "progressive" causes. And that shift is what is causing angst among progressive activists in the United States, who charge that Change.org used progressive organizing and progressive organizers to discover and build its business model, only to flip and roll it out for causes and political entities that might negate their own efforts.

Change.org has been successful because they've been able to monetize political action, says Raven Brooks, executive director of the liberal group Netroots Nation. But he notes that it has done so "on the backs of progressives."

"Change.org is run by shitheads, which was kind of always obvious. It's a for-profit company that uses .ORG," tweeted the left-leaning political activist and writer Matt Stoller, upon reading the Monday afternoon story in The Huffington Post on Change.org's pivot. HuffPo's Ryan Grim details the details of the decision-making process that led to the policy changes through a set of internal company communiqués leaked to him through a third party.

Stoller was just one of the more blunt commenters on Twitter who expressed various degrees of displeasure at the news.

Others were more philosophical.

"I've been a huge fan of Change.org, and what Ben has been able to build," said Isaac Luria, a progressive organizer at the Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, and the organizing director of Groundswell, a new online organizing platform that he's building with software engineer and community organizer Nathan Woodhull at ControlShift.

Yet Luria says he feels saddened by Change.org's decision.

Luria worked with the staff at Change.org earlier this year on a campaign to move Village Voice Media to take down sex ads on Backpage.com. The campaigners believe that the ads support child sex trafficking. The campaign successfully pressured 40 advertisers to stop advertising with Village Voice Media, and gathered 250,000 signatures.

"We were married at the hip with Change.org’s staff working on this campaign together," Luria says. "One of the reasons we went to Change.org was the audience they were able to build for us, but also because of the values at the root of the site. And so this was a big deal for me. As a petition creator, I’m saddened by the news. But I’m trying to be realistic about the fact that this is what happens when you try to monetize something like this. It’s the next natural step in monetization: You start with one community, and you go to others."

Luria says that he's going to stop using Change.org for political action, and shift over to the organizing system that Groundswell is planning on pulling the wraps off of sometime in the next few upcoming weeks.

The move follows turbulence between Change.org and its left-leaning constituency earlier this year when labor supporters pressured the company to stop dealing with Students First, the organization created by former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee that has advocated for changes to teachers' collective bargaining rights. In response to the complaints, Change.org initially said it would let the contract expire, but in the meantime has changed its advertising policy.* Coming as it does after a leadership change at another progressive technology company, the online organizing platform provider Salsa Labs, Change.org's announcement has a small group of progressive online activists and consultants very concerned. In their view, an infrastructure of technology built specifically for political organizing and in response to the feature requests of progressive movements — different, they say, from generalized tools like Amazon's cloud computing platform or even Facebook or Google — is now being sold to the very people they were building tools to organize against.

At the same time, the vendors, and even some customers, admit that as companies grow, the lines that they have sworn not to cross become blurry. For instance, the Democratic Party is now divided on merit-based pay and other changes to teachers' bargaining agreements. For many people in the labor movement, which also happens to be a big part of the market for organizing tools, this is a break in solidarity with the American Federation of Teachers and a sin. Even Blue State Digital, which had the Dean campaign as a childhood sandbox and Obama 2008 as finishing school, cannot take communion: BSD computers handle traffic for Students First's website. And Salsa Labs had the Electronic Frontier Foundation as a client on one side of the Stop Online Piracy Act debate, and the AFL-CIO, also a client, on the other.

To be clear, not every member of the progressive online organizing community is united in the opinion that their peers' move to open up their platforms is a bad move. But there is a voluble faction who object.

Benjamin Joffe-Walt, Change.org's director of communications, downplayed those concerns.

“For most Change.org users, it’s neither surprising nor newsworthy that we are open to advertising from all comers," he said. "We’ve posted our advertising policies on the site. We posted a new and incredibly detailed analysis of our business model online and we’ve made extensive efforts to engage with groups that care about this, and we will continue to do so."

And he noted, the policy changes encompass a far wider range of causes and issues than those limited to those in the United States. The majority of Change.org's 20 million users are located outside of the United States, he says, in each of the world's 196 countries.

Still, the progressive activists' points, and internal discussion over who Change.org will and won't do business with in the future in an internal company document still shows how difficult it really is to build a business on free speech and "social good."

The internal document says that ultimate discretion for what kind of advertising Change.org will accept will be up to Ben Rattray, the company's CEO and founder. The document gives wiggle room to the company to turn down ads based on "technical limitations" that would "prevent us from being able to serve the ad without putting off lots of our users."

Change.org expects that personalization technology will enable it to widen its advertiser base and to better target audiences, and it's relying on the technology to open up new markets. The internal document outlining the changes says that the company won't accept any new ads from political campaigns or candidates until it has the personalization technology in place, which it doesn't expect to have until sometime in 2013.

*This post has been corrected: Despite telling The Huffington Post this June that they had "committed to concluding" the contract with StudentsFirst, Change.org has allowed StudentsFirst to carry on advertising its petitions. Change.org's Joffe-Walt explained in an e-mail that it takes time for ad campaigns to wind down, depending on factors such as traffic levels to the web site, and the volume of other sponsored petitions running on the site.

"So our pre-existing contract with StudentsFirst is still running, and under our clarified client policy StudentsFirst is welcome to run petitions on our platform like any other organization," Joffe-Walt said.

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