Sunlight Labs’ Inbox Influence: Sunlight or Sunburn?

Last week, Sunlight Labs released Inbox Influence, a set of browser extensions (Chrome, Firefox) and bookmarklets that annotate senders and entities in the body of emails with who has contributed to them and to whom they have contributed.

I really like the idea of using browser plugins to annotate information people encounter in their regular online interactions. This is something we’re doing on a variety of projects here, including AffectCheck, BALANCE, and Rumors. I think that tools that combine personal data, in-situ, with more depth can teach people more about with whom and with what they are interacting, and this just in time presentation of information is an excellent opportunity to persuade and possibly to prompt reflection. Technically, it’s also a pretty nice implementation.

There are some reasons why this tool may not be so great, however. With Daniel Avrahami, Sunny Consolvo, James Fogarty, Batya Friedman, and Ian Smith, I recently published a paper about people’s attitudes toward the online availability of US public records, including campaign contribution records such as the ones on which Inbox Influence draws. Many respondents to our survey (mailed, no compensation, likely biased toward people who care more about this issue) expressed discomfort with these records being so easily accessible, and less than half (as of 2008) even knew that campaign contribution records were available online before they received the survey. Nearly half said that they wanted some sort of change, and a third said that this availability would alter their future behavior, i.e., they’d contribute less (take this with a grain of salt, since it is about hypothetical future behavior).

Unless awareness and attitudes have changed quite a bit from 2008, tools such as Inbox Influence create privacy violations. The data is being used and presented in ways that people did not anticipate at the time when they made the decision to donate, and at least some people are “horrified” or at least uncomfortable with this information being so easily accessible. Perhaps we just need to do better at educating potential donors about in what ways campaign contribution data may be used (and anticipate future mashups), though it is also possible that tools like this do not need to be made, or could benefit from being a bit more nuanced in when and about whom they load information.

Speaking personally, I’m not sure how I feel. On the one hand, I think that campaign contributions and other other actions should be open to scrutiny and should have consequences. If you take the money you earn from your business and donate it to support Prop 8, I want the opportunity to boycott your business. If you support a politician who wants to eviscerate the NSF, I might want to engage you in conversation about that. On the other hand, I don’t like the idea that my campaign contribution history (anything above the reporting limit) might be loaded automatically when I email a professional colleague or a student. That’s just not relevant—or even appropriate—to the context. And there are some friendships among political diverse individuals that may survive, in part, because those differences are not always made salient. So it also seems like Inbox Influence or tools that let you load, with a click, your Facebook friends’ contribution history, could sometimes cause harm.