- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

Political campaigns have found that some of the state-of-the-art technologies they are using to attract voters can be a liability if they aren’t handled carefully, and that they are vulnerable to being hijacked.

The campaigns of Democrats vying for the presidency are increasingly using Web sites, e-mail and text messaging to rally support. Staffers in charge of Internet operations say they are learning to work with more care, particularly after several campaigns inadvertently sent spam to potential voters.

The presidential campaign of Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, accidentally sent out a flurry of unsolicited e-mail messages shortly after announcing his candidacy last year, drawing the ire of some recipients who had not expressed an interest in getting material on his campaign.

Michael Liddell, the Lieberman campaign’s director of Internet strategy, said they quickly learned to use only a permission-based e-mail list and to guard it closely.

But since then, the campaign has been barraged by criticism over what Web users call “referral log spam.” Owners of Web sites worldwide said they have noticed a link to several campaign sites, including Mr. Lieberman’s, appearing in referral logs, which record information on who is visiting a site and where that person came from. The logs are used by Web site operators who want to know who is visiting their site, but the logs often are corrupted by spammers who inject phony links into the logs.

The campaigns of Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, who have recently withdrawn from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, also fell victim to the referral log spam.

Mr. Liddell said the links to the Lieberman campaign were put there by StarProse, an outside company that has no connection to the campaign. He discovered the problem after several victims complained on a popular Internet message board.

Officials from StarProse could not be reached for comment, and its Web site was unavailable.

“I went to the [site] and looked at it and said, what the [heck] is going on?” Mr. Liddell said. “This is the kind of stuff that [ticks] off everyone. And we have absolutely no control over it.”

Campaigns generally have no control over what opponents and critics do with e-mail and other technologies.

Several of the candidates have been blamed for sending spam that is fraudulently made to look like it comes from their campaigns. And most wrestle with inflammatory and occasionally obscene statements made by critics on the constantly updated campaign sites known as “blogs.”

Last fall, many supporters of Mr. Dean were bombarded on their cell phones, after a glitch in a mailing list allowed subscribers to receive a constant stream of text messages from Dean opponents.

“This is sort of a new arena,” Mr. Liddell said. “It’s definitely sort of the Wild West, and a bit unregulated. There’s a lot of potential for abuse out there that doesn’t really happen with a TV ad.”

Campaigns said they will continue to use e-mail as a way to rally support, but have learned there is a fine line between informing and alienating potential voters.

“We’ve tried not to inundate people with e-mail,” said Eric Carbone, the managing editor of the campaign Web site for Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark. “We feel that each piece of mail should have the most impact. We feel at some point, people just roll their eyes and say ‘this is too much.’”

Most laws designed to prevent spam concentrate only on advertisements for businesses and products, and exempt political messages. For this reason, efforts in the past to sue politicians for sending spam have failed.

A North Carolina man sued Sen. Elizabeth Dole, North Carolina Republican, for sending unsolicited e-mail during her campaign in 2002. The case was thrown out of court. Cases of political-oriented spam have appeared frequently in Europe.

But antispam advocates said that philosophically, political spam is no different than any other kind of spam.

“Most of us involved in the [antispam] effort believe that spam is spam regardless of the content,” said Ray Everett-Church, chief counsel with the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail. “There are many of us who actually feel that political spam suffers from the same problems and should be treated the same.”

Mr. Everett-Church said political campaigns should be particularly sensitive to spam, because of the potential backlash from voters.

“Advocates and politicians can find no more efficient way of alienating their political constituency than spamming,” he said.

And in the case of Mr. Lieberman, the accidental sending of spam was particularly embarrassing, given the senator’s vocal support for the nation’s first federal antispam law.

“We can’t be spamming people, and not just because it’s the wrong thing to do,” Mr. Liddell said.


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