CircleVoting.com: Is your privacy protected?

I updated my last post on CircleVoting.com as they added features I was asking about, including ballot information for San Francisco and new privacy controls. The privacy settings are some of the clearest I’ve come across on a socially-connected application. I’ve included a screenshot, below. One problem still is that a new account is defaulted to being Public — I think it should be Friends-Only. But if you take a second to change your settings, the short answer is yes, your privacy is protected.

Screenshot of CircleVoting.com's privacy controls

Aside from the immediate visibility of your voting preferences, though, there is a larger question around how this data is used in aggregate. Voting preferences could be packaged up and sold to the highest bidder. This isn’t necessarily a privacy issue, since the data can be aggregated in a way that couldn’t identify individual voters, but it would be ideal if CircleVoting.com were up-front about whether it intended to profit from this information in the future. I asked Jesse Sanford this follow-up question. It seems that CircleVoting is still just beginning to think about this issue.

Q: Privacy and profit are often at odds. When my friends and I considered building a similar site, a while back, it occurred to us that having aggregate voting preferences combined with user demographics might be really valuable. With Murray’s [Edelman: co-founder and investor] deep experience in polling and public opinion, I imagine CircleVoting.com has thought of this as well. I think this valuable data could be monetized ethically, but there are a lot of ways to do it wrong. Do you make any public pledges to restrict how CircleVoting.com will use its users’ data, and how will you make your policies clear to your users?

Jesse: [T]he big case that isn’t handled right now is the case of a user who becomes more private and needs to remove listeners as part of that. Expect an interface that covers that case as soon as Dennis and I get to it.

To address the question about data retention, sharing and privacy, we posted the privacy policy we’re drafting with our attorney at http://circlevoting.com/static/privacy — parts of it are somewhat boilerplate at the moment, however, and it may change. The gist is, we will never share your personal information except to do business with you (maybe send you an email, etc.) or as required by law.

You raise an interesting question about sharing aggregated information, like statistics; all I can say on that is that we have no plans to do so at this time and I really haven’t given thought to it. My intention is that whatever we do will serve the purpose of cultivating more functional, distributed democracy.

Now, it’s true that in the long run the money in electoral politics always has a side, and most sites like ours will probably face pressure eventually to make money by hooking people up with campaigns and causes they care about (and for which they might eventually donate or volunteer). If we take steps in that direction, our intention is to do so equitably for the various sides of a race/issue, in a way that continues our goal of reducing the influence of money in politics. We’ll also be sure to ask users’ permission and take community views into account if/when we develop that offering.

So, no clear answer here and, as with any service of this sort, they can just change the terms of use. I would encourage the founders to think deeply about how to make their business model transparent to users. At the moment, CircleVoting.com is an interesting service with an appealing social mission. I’m definitely excited to be using it. But to be trusted at scale, it will need to have a more concrete ethical foundation.

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One Response to “CircleVoting.com: Is your privacy protected?”

  1. Jesse Sanford Says:

    Eric, you raise a great point about keeping the business model transparent. At the moment we are venture-funded, and the truth is that we don’t have a business model. We’re really just developing an experimental service to see how this space operates and whether people want such a thing.

    For any kind of vote aggregation system operating at scale on something as high-stakes as election data, I think we all want transparency in how we record and count the votes: perhaps open source code and API-consumable data will help.

    My preference as to monetization would be to restrict or at least regulate carefully how money could be accepted from political campaigns. A better way to make money would be to ask the community to pay when we provide premium or more convenient content: for instance, we could charge a modest fee to access aggregated RSS streams of opinion data, perhaps reserving text (as opposed to the choice itself, the “valence” or direction of a vote) for paid users. Thus the pieces we count, we make available publically to everyone, but the rest of the commentary you pay for if you want it in RSS. Otherwise you have to visit our site to access it. At scale, there is a market for this service consisting of researchers, journalists, bloggers and even major media organizations seeking to monitor election developments efficiently.

    This is an open question and I don’t have any answers at this stage.