By Rev. Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.
Using geolocation data has changed the way elections are fought and won. This last election cycle, the Democratic Party defied historical trends and a challenging national environment to expand its Senate majority and limit its losses in the House of Representatives.
Democrats spent almost four times the amount of capital compared to Republicans on Facebook and Instagram ads during August and September of this year, and it was well worth it. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent even more money on its grassroots organizing than television advertising for the first time in its history.
Culturally sensitive and respectful targeting in all public campaigns has proven to be effective and efficient across the nation. All modern political organizing is built upon sophisticated data, analytics, and modeling that allows campaigns to target the voters they need to win using geolocation data.
The caliber of geolocation data has improved exponentially, and its use cases are practically endless. Democrats successfully used it to target donors, track voters and follow other political audiences in a way that hasn’t been done before.
Unfortunately, these services might end abruptly as a recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) lawsuit against Idaho-based company, Kochava, brought to light the severe lack of regulations and guidelines surrounding data privacy. There are no set rules or regulations regarding this type of data privacy, so companies are left to their own devices to define what data privacy means and how they will implement measures to protect it.
For example, Kochava implemented Privacy Block, which blocks out location data at sensitive places, including health clinics and churches; but without guidelines or regulations from the government to standardize and/or define what a sensitive location is, this is the best data providers can do to prevent data from being used inappropriately.
I commend the companies taking it upon themselves to protect our data, especially any healthcare-related data, in the wake of the Dobbs decision; but I am disheartened that the government is wasting its time with lawsuits instead of creating real legislation that addresses mobile geolocation data privacy.
Congress must continue to draft appropriate legislative regulations and guidelines for geolocation data sharing and user privacy. The ambiguous lawsuit from the FTC will not provide a clean or clear path forward for data-sharing companies.
Geolocation technology made it possible for huge political gain last month, but if Biden’s FTC is allowed to bypass the authority of Congress and suppress data companies, Democrats might not have as much success during the 2024 presidential election.
According to a poll done by the Associated Press, voters under 30 went 53 percent for Democratic candidates last month, which is down from the 2020 election at 61 percent. Black voters still overwhelmingly supported Democrats for Congress, but that support fell between four and seven percentage points compared to 2018. Democrats won in Georgia by less than 3 percent of the vote – which is too close for comfort, and certainly too close to lose a tactic as valuable as geolocation technology.
I look to my friends in the Congressional Black Caucus, including Representative James Clyburn, a neighbor of not only Georgia but of my home state of North Carolina, to bring an action to protect this needed technology and create regulations that clearly define proper use.
The next two years will be critical in defining what the future of our country looks like – we need rational leaders who will serve Americans of all backgrounds, especially the minority and underserved communities. Minority voters are the base of the party and elect those who will fight to end inequalities. We cannot have a repeat of 2016, but I worry that an overzealous FTC will end up costing Democrats elections and silencing the voices of so many Americans.