Attacks on political donors demonstrate dangers of excessive disclosure

This morning I read that the group of hackers collectively known as ‘Anonymous’ targeted web sites associated with Koch Industries. The story is in many ways a perfect example of the dangers of the type of excessive disclosure so-called campaign finance ‘reformers’ are demanding, and why it’s so important to protect citizens’ right to privately associate and speak out in politics and on public policy issues.

Launching what is known as ‘distributed denial of service’ (DDoS) attacks, Anonymous apparently  attempted to shut down web sites by overwhelming them with traffic (I’m something of a neo-Luddite myself, so please forgive any technical errors in my description of a DDoS).

From the Smoking Gun web site:

FBI Targets 12 In Koch Industries Online Assault

As part of its multi-front assault on “Anonymous,” the FBI has identified 12 “targets” it alleges participated in coordinated online assaults earlier this year against business web sites operated by Koch Industries, the Kansas-based conglomerate owned by billionaire brothers–and leading Republican benefactors–Charles and David Koch, The Smoking Gun has learned…

For example, Koch Industries records showed that one blogger accessed the firm’s Angel Soft toilet paper web site nearly 16,000 times during one nine-minute period in March. The DDoS attacks, according to the affidavit, also involved the Koch Industries web site (kochind.com) and a web site for Quilted Northern, another of the firm’s toilet paper brands…

The online confederation of hackers and activists targeted the Koch brothers in connection with the pair’s support of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who earlier this year launched a crackdown on public employees unions that included the elimination of collective bargaining rights for state workers. In retaliation, “Anonymous” launched Operation Wisconsin, an effort aimed at exploiting “online loopholes and vulnerabilities into the systems and servers related to” the Koch brothers and Walker…

I’ll set aside here the irony that a group known only as Anonymous is attacking  wealthy libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch, whom ‘reformers’ endlessly complain about because of their supposedly secret and untraceable political and public policy spending.

What has my interest this morning is the concept that enraged activists would target someone’s business because they don’t like the politics of the person who owns the business. This represents yet another front in the ongoing war against citizens’ right to donate to candidates and causes, by having the government create and make accessible to everyone, through intrusive disclosure requirements, a ready-made Enemies List that conveniently identifies where people work and what businesses they own.

For a large company like Koch Industries, it may be that this sort of harassment is little more than a nuisance, something that they are easily able to afford the high-tech cyber security services needed to thwart such attacks.

But imagine the plight of a small business owner who gave to the ‘wrong’ gubernatorial candidate in the eyes of an enraged activist, or to an advocacy group that has views on public policy that anger militant ideologues. Current and proposed disclosure requirements would leave these people and their businesses vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, cyber attacks, and other assaults simply for giving a few hundred dollars to a candidate or interest group. For businesses that rely on their web sites to generate sales, attacks like those connected to Anonymous could be ruinous.

Within a short time, business owners will get the message that exercising their First Amendment rights comes at a steep price, and many will begin to question whether subjecting themselves and their business to abusive and illegal retribution by groups like Anonymous is worth it, or even affordable. This will inevitably result in many business owners, particularly small ones, holding back their support of the candidates and causes they believe in.

There seems to be a growing number of unhinged and enraged ideological extremists who see nothing wrong with trying to damage the businesses of people who disagree with them, phoning in death threats to donors of causes they oppose, mailing white powder to people in an attempt to create an anthrax scare, or other forms of intimidation and harassment. And at the center of this it seems is the use and abuse of information made available through disclosure laws. There is little reason to believe it won’t get worse if the dramatically expanded requirements of the DISCLOSE Act or similar measures are adopted.

It’s time to roll back these excessive disclosure laws. There is some modest anti-corruption value in revealing who is giving large contributions directly to candidates and to political parties. But for smaller donors, certainly those giving less than $1,000 or even $2,000 to federal candidates, it’s hard to see the justification for any sort of public disclosure.

As for contributions made to support independent political speech, such as by groups like American Crossroads and Priorities USA, it’s becoming clear that the danger to contributors of financial and economic assault, vandalism, threats of physical violence, and other forms of retribution by enraged extremists is rapidly coming to outweigh any legitimate public interest in knowing who is funding what political message.

Add in the idea of a vengeful Administration, either this one or a future one, following the path of the Nixon Administration and using disclosure information to determine which businesses are allowed to get government contracts and which will be shut out, and it should be evident why this information should not be publically available.

And it should be even more obvious that donations made by people for purposes other than campaign-related political speech, such as gifts to National Right to Life or Planned Parenthood, should never be forced to be disclosed. Likewise, the troubling call for the American Legislative Exchange Council (a 501(c)3 organization that is legally prohibited from campaign-related activity) should be rejected.

It’s time to rethink the value of and appropriate limits on disclosure of campaign contributions and donations to independent third-party groups. While once upon a time disclosure reports sat in file cabinets at the Federal Election Commission or in the state capitol, only occasionally perused by interested reporters or political operatives, now the information in these reports is only a few keystrokes away for anyone with an internet connection.

Disclosure requirements should reflect this new reality, and be modernized to sharply curtail the public availability of all but the most vital information on the private political preferences and activities of citizens. Otherwise, most Americans will opt to avoid the dangers associated with contributing, leaving only the most zealous or those wealthy enough to afford the needed security to support the candidates and causes they believe in.