On Tuesday, Oct. 22 at 10:25 a.m., an e-mail from Karen Heinrich, staff assistant to City Schools Supt. Alan Bersin, made its way through the school district. “It's time for a change on the School Board,” the e-mail's subject line read. The body of the message started off with a quote from Mayor Dick Murphy voicing his support for school board candidate Clyde Fuller. Following the quote was a slam of Fuller's opponent John de Beck: “For eight years,” the e-mail asserted, “incumbent John de Beck sat by idly on the school board while student scores plummeted....”
Exactly 24 minutes later, another e-mail passed through the school district mail server; this time the sender was listed as Bill Hamlin, president of the Ayres Land Company, a real estate development firm. The subject line: “It's time for a change on the School Board.” And the first line of text? The same quote from Mayor Murphy.
Different senders, same e-mail text and same originating e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kintera, it turns out, is a San Diego Internet marketing company that sets its clients up with everything they need to launch a Web-based support campaign. Kintera's main client list comprises nonprofit organizations, although Ephraim Feig, Kintera's chief technology and marketing officer, said that the company is just now entering the political arena and Clyde Fuller is one of its first clients. Supporters of Fuller, then, can go to his Web site and click on the link “Tell your friends about Clyde.” From there they're encouraged to provide the names and e-mail addresses of people to whom they would like to send a form letter in support of Fuller. They're also encouraged to make a campaign contribution. Kintera calls this the “Friends Asking Friends” program and estimates that 26 percent of e-mail recipients will fork over some cash.
The program isn't free. Feig couldn't say how much Fuller paid for the service but he did say that a basic package includes a $200 set-up fee and $125 a month to maintain a database of up to 5,000 contacts. Increased functionality, of course, means a higher price.
But here's the rub: Heinrich, Bersin's staff assistant, said she never signed up with Kintera and has no idea how her name got attached to the e-mail. “I did not give anyone permission to use my name,” she said. She did, however, admit to being a Fuller supporter. Bill Hamlin, on the other hand, said he was aware of the e-mail sent out under his name.
Feig said Kintera is very concerned about privacy and security issues and the problems that accompany unsolicited e-mail. “There's always going to be unscrupulous people,” he said. Kintera, he added, isn't responsible for e-mails sent out through its system. He also said that there's been a few of complaints so far from people who've received e-mail in support of Fuller.
De Beck, who received copies of both the Hamlin and Heinrich e-mails said district employees are used to getting e-mail from Bersin by way of Heinrich and apparently this e-mail went out to everyone on the mailing list set up for that purpose. “How can you argue the Superintendent isn't involved in politics when his e-mail list is being used?” de Beck wondered.