For the backers of Proposition 8, the state ballot measure to stop single-sex couples from marrying in California, victory has been soured by the ugly specter of intimidation.
Some donors to groups supporting the measure have received death threats and envelopes containing a powdery white substance, and their businesses have been boycotted.
The targets of this harassment blame a controversial and provocative Web site, eightmaps.com.
The site takes the names and ZIP codes of people who donated to the ballot measure — information that California collects and makes public under state campaign finance disclosure laws — and overlays the data on a Google map.
Visitors can see markers indicating a contributor’s name, approximate location, amount donated and, if the donor listed it, employer. That is often enough information for interested parties to find the rest — like an e-mail or home address. The identity of the site’s creators, meanwhile, is unknown; they have maintained their anonymity.
Eightmaps.com is the latest, most striking example of how information collected through disclosure laws intended to increase the transparency of the political process, magnified by the powerful lens of the Web, may be undermining the same democratic values that the regulations were to promote.
With tools like eightmaps — and there are bound to be more of them — strident political partisans can challenge their opponents directly, one voter at a time. The results, some activists fear, could discourage people from participating in the political process altogether.
That is why the soundtrack to eightmaps.com is a loud gnashing of teeth among civil libertarians, privacy advocates and people supporting open government. The site pits their cherished values against each other: political transparency and untarnished democracy versus privacy and freedom of speech.
“When I see those maps, it does leave me with a bit of a sick feeling in my stomach,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, which has advocated for open democracy. “This is not really the intention of voter disclosure laws. But that’s the thing about technology. You don’t really know where it is going to take you.”
Ms. Alexander and many Internet activists have good reason to be queasy. California’s Political Reform Act of 1974, and laws like it across the country, sought to cast disinfecting sunlight on the political process by requiring contributions of more than $100 to be made public.
Eightmaps takes that data, formerly of interest mainly to social scientists, pollsters and journalists, and publishes it in a way not foreseen when the open-government laws were passed. As a result, donors are exposed to a wide audience and, in some cases, to harassment or worse.
Joseph Clare, a San Francisco accountant who donated $500 to supporters of Proposition 8, said he had received several e-mail messages accusing him of “donating to hate.” Mr. Clare said the site perverts the meaning of disclosure laws that were originally intended to expose large corporate donors who might be seeking to influence big state projects.
“I don’t think the law was designed to identify people for direct feedback to them from others on the other side,” Mr. Clare said. “I think it’s been misused.”
Many civil liberties advocates, including those who disagree with his views on marriage, say he has a point. They wonder if open-government rules intended to protect political influence of the individual voter, combined with the power of the Internet, might be having the opposite effect on citizens.
“These are very small donations given by individuals, and now they are subject to harassment that ultimately makes them less able to engage in democratic decision making,” said Chris Jay Hoofnagle, senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology at the University of California.
“The key here is developing a process that balances the sometimes competing goals of transparency and privacy,” said the professor, Ned Moran, whose undergraduate class on information privacy spent a day discussing the eightmaps site last month.
“Both goals are essential for a healthy democracy,” he said, “and I think we are currently witnessing, as demonstrated by eightmaps, how the increased accessibility of personal information is disrupting the delicate balance between them.”