But Goodstein’s legal crusade will also serve to protect a political technology that is not at the moment value-neutral: The Obama campaign has a huge advantage when it comes to targeting voters via solicited text message.
Beginning in the late 1990s, inexpensive access to voter files and ubiquitous robo-dialing technology made mass, automated voter contact cheap and easy. (Vendors charge pennies per robocall.) But the strict regulations around mobile phones have ensured that they exist in a privileged space among forms of campaign communication—the only platform where one needs prior permission to approach a voter. “The law was written at a time when there was a small number of mobile phones owned generally by really well-off people, including politicians, and they were very expensive with no all-you-can-eat plans. The people who had them wanted to protect them,” says Shaun Dakin, a marketing consultant and privacy advocate who launched the National Political Do Not Contact Registry. “Now there are more and more people who are cell-phone only.” The cost of having a cell phone has come down in the interim, but most plans still charge users to receive text messages.
As a result, the durable competitive advantage in mobile communication isn’t technology but social capital: having a strong enough relationship with supporters that they will agree to accept intrusive messages for which they may have to pay. The invasive quality of text messages—they typically interrupt all activity on a device—means that, more so than any other type of political communication, they are almost certain to be seen. Industry studies show text messages are often 10 times more likely to be opened than email. “If you have a text message list of 10,000,” says Goodstein, “that’s equal to an email list of 100,000.”
Obama can claim supremacy in that area likely to remain unmatched by anyone trying to unseat him. The millions of mobile numbers accessible via the campaign’s Chicago servers are a testament to years of diligent organizing and data collection. When Oprah Winfrey agreed to appear at three early-state rallies in the summer of 2007, it was widely seen as a major media coup: possibly the most admired woman in America making a rare foray into partisan politics to stand alongside a candidate. But for those in Obama's campaign office in Columbia, S.C., where Winfrey was scheduled to appear at a Sunday-afternoon rally, the star's barnstorming weekend presented a special challenge. To make the Oprah event a success, they would have to gather useful data on the 30,000 people being shuttled from local churches into a football stadium to hear the talk-show host introduce Obama. Goodstein decided to get rid of the volunteers and clipboards at the doors and instead use the speakers and stadium's screens to encourage attendees to enter a proprietary short code, 62262, which spelled “Obama,” and opt-in for future text message updates. The campaign would instantly text the sender back to confirm they had registered, with a warning that message and data rates applied and instructions to remove oneself from the list.
Over the course of the campaign, Goodstein experimented with the language of the request for people to text, always trying to find new ways to get people to give Obama permission to contact them on their cell phones. By the time Obama accepted the Democratic nomination in an open-air stadium in Denver in August of 2008, Oprah had been resigned to a seat in an audience of 80,000. Now Goodstein was providing the entertainment: As the crowd trickled in for hours before the program began, Invesco Field's screens were filled with games and trivia contests that Goodsteain had scripted, all designed to lure the waiting crowd to take out their mobile devices. "If you were bored we collected your cell-phone number," Goodstein says proudly. By then, Obama’s Chicago headquarters had reportedly harvested 3 million of them.
Since 2008, Goodstein’s Revolution Messaging has developed similar programs for many of Obama’s allies on the left, including AFSCME and the Democratic National Committee, as clients. The firm’s petition to fight unsolicited texting is on the FCC’s docket, and will likely open up a comment period in which some of the rival consultants Goodstein has hounded as text spammers will be given an opportunity to defend their practice and the loophole that makes it possible. (Joseph would not comment directly on Goodstein’s petition, other than to direct Slate to a ccAdvertising press release that affirmed the company believes it is following federal telemarketing laws.) A majority of commissioners—including chairman Julius Genachowski, a longtime Obama friend who was a fundraiser and tech adviser to the 2008 campaign and whom Goodstein refers to by first name—would then offer a ruling clarifying whether email-to-text messages are covered under the mobile law. Goodstein is not currently working for Obama’s campaign, although he does not rule it out. He is rooting for the FCC to weigh in before the fall election season.