Nonprofit Donors Should Have Their Data Protected, Too

March 25, 2024 | Luke Wachob

In an effort to protect personal privacy, the Biden administration recently issued an Executive Order prohibiting the sale of Americans’ sensitive personal data to “countries of concern,” such as China and Russia.

“The sale of Americans’ data raises significant privacy, counterintelligence, blackmail risks and other national security risks—especially for those in the military or national security community.  Countries of concern can also access Americans’ sensitive personal data to collect information on activists, academics, journalists, dissidents, political figures, and members of non-governmental organizations and marginalized communities to intimidate opponents of countries of concern, curb dissent, and limit Americans’ freedom of expression and other civil liberties,” the White House explained in its announcement.

The Order gives action to President Biden’s previous statements about the importance of safeguarding data privacy. In a 2023 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Biden wrote that “we need serious federal protections for Americans’ privacy. That means clear limits on how companies can collect, use and share highly personal data—your internet history, your personal communications, your location, and your health, genetic and biometric data.”

The president continued: “It’s not enough for companies to disclose what data they’re collecting. Much of that data shouldn’t be collected in the first place.”

When Americans join together in groups that speak about political issues or advocate for change, however, the administration changes its tune. In this year’s State of the Union Address, Biden attacked so-called “dark money” as a nefarious force that should be rooted out of our politics. Yet, “dark money” is simply a pejorative term for groups that keep the “highly personal data” of their members and supporters private.

These organizations, which include groups on all sides of hot-button topics like gun laws, abortion, and immigration, play a key role in our society. Americans who lack the wealth or time to personally spread a message far and wide are able to pool their resources and, as a group, participate in efforts to persuade large numbers of fellow citizens. Critically, individuals are also shielded from possible harassment and retaliation from powerful groups they criticize or oppose.

Donor privacy is an important freedom protected by the First Amendment and longstanding Supreme Court precedent. In today’s world, it should also be considered a core component of data privacy. Yet, President Biden has endorsed the DISCLOSE Act, legislation that would force nonprofit advocacy groups to choose between self-censorship or doxing their supporters.

The DISCLOSE Act would enable foreign governments, extremists, and others to chill the speech of American nonprofits by publicly exposing the names and addresses of their top supporters. It would cause many of the same harms the Biden White House claims to be trying to prevent in its Executive Order, including surveillance of citizens’ most sensitive beliefs, speech, and associations.

The threat of foreign censorship and retaliation from donor disclosure is perhaps best exemplified by nonprofits that criticize the Chinese government – a “country of concern” under the recent Executive Order. Dr. Yang Jianli, a member of our National Privacy Advisory Council, has written at length about the life-or-death consequences of privacy for donors to his U.S.-based organization, Citizen Power Initiatives for China. “Our work would be unsustainable without the ability to shield our supporters. The same is true for many other important causes supported by nonprofits throughout the United States,” Dr. Yang wrote in a 2023 op-ed for Real Clear Policy.

In the United States, debates about nonprofit donor privacy and “dark money” often fail to consider how donor disclosure enables repression by foreign governments. Even when the potential for abuse by American government officials is discussed, the danger from abroad is often ignored. Now, that danger has been forgotten once more in the Biden administration’s attempt to protect Americans’ data and civil liberties from countries of concern.

Fortunately, nonprofit donors have benefited from some federal reforms in recent years. The IRS stopped collecting personally sensitive donor information from groups that do not offer their donors a tax deduction. Congress has also repeatedly included riders in appropriations bills to protect nonprofit donors from invasive actions and rulemakings by various federal agencies. Seventeen states have acted to protect the privacy rights of nonprofit members and supporters as well. But the Biden administration’s continuing support for new donor disclosure laws threatens to undermine that modest progress.

The freedom to associate privately with like-minded Americans and share your views with the world is no small thing. It is one of the key vehicles for citizens to turn their beliefs and desires about government into real-world movements for change. Failing to protect donor privacy puts all of our civil liberties at risk and leaves a massive loophole in any data privacy regime.