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GoFundMe campaigns to buy lawmakers’ web histories raised hundreds of thousands of dollars — then failed to deliver

The effort may have generated lots of headlines, but it was doomed from the start.

Donald Trump Delivers Address To Joint Session Of Congress Alex Wong / Getty

As Congress voted in March to scrap online privacy rules imposed by the Obama administration, angry internet users devised a plan: They sought to raise big bucks so they could buy and publish lawmakers’ web-browsing histories.

But roughly a month later — despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations — some of these campaigns appear to be admitting defeat and scrambling to figure out how to refund or donate the cash.

It turns out, it isn’t really possible to contact a broadband provider like AT&T or Comcast* and buy data on a specific internet user and the websites they visit. Of course, that’s always been the case, said Jules Polonetsky, the leader of the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. “In no conceivable way is it legal ... to sell the individual browser history of a person,” he told Recode in an interview Thursday.

Still, web users mobilized beginning last month, when Republicans in Congress moved to eliminate rules that would have required internet providers to obtain customers’ consent before sharing their web-browsing data with advertisers. The repeal, signed into law by President Donald Trump in April, unexpectedly touched a national nerve: Even the creator of Cards Against Humanity jumped into the debate, prompting an onslaught of news stories about the push to exact revenge on lawmakers who wanted to kill the rules.

Amid the uproar, Adam McElhaney, a self-described “privacy activist” from Chattanooga, Tenn., took his frustration to GoFundMe. He put up a portal in March seeking $10,000 in donations in a bid to “turn the tables” and “buy the histories of those who took away your right to privacy.”

Financially, McElhaney’s effort quickly exceeded expectations: He ended up raising roughly $210,000 from more than 13,000 backers. By the end of April, however, he hadn’t obtained a single lawmaker’s personal information.

A number of users soon began posting publicly on his page asking for refunds. In the meantime, the clock was ticking: GoFundMe requires campaigns on its site to withdraw their money within 30 days or they cannot accept any new donations. And on April 24, inches away from that deadline, McElhaney published a post saying he felt he had to return what he had raised.

“I had hoped I would have something by now,” he said in his update. “But I don’t. But with the GoFundMe 30-day mark approaching I don’t feel like I should pull down any donations. Even to recover some of my costs. I think it is only fair that everyone's money be refunded.”

In his post, McElhaney said he is “not giving up.” For those who don’t reclaim their cash, he said he would donate the leftover dollars to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Emailed on Thursday, McElhaney did not immediately respond to questions about his campaign. A spokeswoman for EFF, meanwhile, said GoFundMe had helped the group get in touch with McElhaney, but added: “We have not received any funds as yet.”

The online privacy debate similarly angered Misha Collins, the actor who stars in the television show “Supernatural.” On March 28, Collins put up his own GoFundMe page, urging visitors to “band together to buy THEIR privacy,” and he set a wildly ambitious goal to raise $500 million.

By April 27, Collins had raised more than $87,000 from about 4,300 backers, far short of his target (which some GoFundMe users had even mocked). In the meantime, he didn’t post a single update about his progress — and did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

At the time Collins launched his campaign, he offered at least some hint as to where the funds might eventually land. “Proceeds from this campaign will be used to buy Congress’ data once it becomes available. If that is impossible for any reason or if there is a surplus from this campaign, 100% of the balance of proceeds will go to the ACLU to help them continue to fight for our privacy rights.”

For its part, a spokesman for GoFundMe told Recode on Thursday that the crowdfunding site is “working with both campaign organizers to ensure the funds are managed appropriately.”

“No funds have been withdrawn,” the spokesman continued. “We will be sure the campaign organizers communicate clearly with the donors about how the funds are distributed.”

* Comcast, via its NBCU unit, is a minority investor in Vox Media, which owns this site.

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