Bogus Broadband Astroturf Organizations Always Have Names Pretending They Represent The Consumers They're Working To Screw Over

from the because-that's-how-it's-done dept

Astroturfing in the broadband space is big business. You may recall last summer when we uncovered evidence of significant astroturfing in the Amazon reviews to Susan Crawford's Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, a book that seriously challenges many of the big broadband players' key talking points. It seemed fairly obvious from what we presented that someone had gone out and faked a bunch of negative reviews (and not made much of an effort to hide it).

Of course, astroturfing takes on many forms, and the folks over at Vice have done an excellent job highlighting how a bunch of "consumer groups" that seem to repeat big broadband talking points on net neutrality are, of course, not actual consumer groups, but mostly funded by the big broadband players themselves. And some of them have fairly massive budgets. Having at least some familiarity with the budgets of actual consumer rights/public interest organizations, there's a lot of money being dumped into the astroturfing groups which are often fighting against consumer interests, but always seem to have names that are exactly the opposite of their true position, with these two being the most prominent:
  • Broadband for America seems to be pretty focused on making sure that broadband only comes from the oligopolists.
  • American Consumer Institute may be the most amusing, since it's controlled and funded by lobbyists for the mobile operators.
This isn't a huge surprise. Last time there was a big net neutrality fight, there was a front group called "Hands Off the Internet", funded by the big telcos, which conveniently ignored all of the subsidies and tax-breaks the government gave them to install their networks in the first place. They had no problem with government "hands on the internet" when it saved them money (at the expense of taxpayers), but suddenly pretended that it would somehow magically be different if net neutrality rules were put on them.

And of course, the big broadband players have long histories with astroturfing, even for something as pointless as what channels will be included in TV bundles. On other things, such as fights over munibroadband, Comcast has been known to flood money into so-called "consumer" activist groups, only to watch them disappear the day after key votes happen. Verizon just successfully astroturfed New Jersey officials, to get out of fiber deployment promises. AT&T, of course, is also no stranger to astroturf efforts as well -- going back decades, including hilarious attempts to "fill seats" at public hearings with employees (this still happens today).
It was 1976, and a House subcommittee was considering a bill called the Consumer Communications Reform Act. The proposed law, heavily backed by AT&T, would have made the then monopoly even more of one by effectively declaring its long distance system America's "official" service. The bill clearly targeted a competitor: MCI's new microwave tower network, just being rolled out across the country. For days, Capitol Hill had been deluged by workers, priests, police chiefs, mayors, and anybody else Ma Bell could round up to support the legislation.

Then Representative Tim Wirth of Colorado walked into the hearing room. He saw that it was packed with people. Wirth asked the first panelist, an AT&T executive, to identify his colleagues. Five minutes later the man was still reading out names.

"Will everyone associated with AT&T just stand up?" an exasperated Wirth finally asked. The entire room rose. Everyone started laughing.
So, really, take with a serious grain of salt any claims you see from groups you've never heard from before that have names like the two listed above. As Vice's article points out, while it's not always easy, a little digging will show you who's really involved:

Take this opinion column by former Republican Senator John Sununu and former Democratic Congressman Harold Ford in the San Francisco Chronicle. The pair argues that reclassification would lead to "chronic underinvestment" in broadband services while threatening job loss. The disclaimer running under their byline says they are honorary co-chairs of Broadband for America, which the paper describes as "a coalition of 300 internet consumer advocates, content providers, and engineers."

A disclosure obtained by VICE from the National Cable and Telecom Association (NCTA), a trade group for ISPs, shows that the bulk of Broadband for America's recent $3.5 million budget is funded through a $2 million donation from NCTA. Last month, Broadband for America wrote a letter to the FCC bluntly demanding that the agency “categorically reject” any effort toward designating broadband as a public utility. It wasn't signed by any internet consumer advocates, as the Sununu-Ford letter suggests. The signatures on the letter reads like a who's who of ISP industry presidents and CEOs, including AT&T's Randall Stephenson, Cox Communications' Patrick Esser, NCTA president (and former FCC commissioner) Michael Powell, Verizon's Lowell McAdam, and Comcast's Brian Roberts.

[....]

Another group leading the charge is the American Consumer Institute. The organization recently filed a letter with the FCC opposing reclassification, and argues that ISPs should be left alone. "The fact is that the broadband market is competitive and becoming more so," wrote ACI, which claims that consumers currently enjoy "increased choice." In January, ACI called the Verizon lawsuit that struck down the original FCC net-neutrality guidelines, "a victory for consumers."

Why would a self-professed consumer advocacy group not only oppose moving toward net neutrality but claim that America's broadband market—one of the slowest, most expensive in the industrialized world with fewer than three choices in many parts of the country—is so great?

Perhaps because ACI, like Broadband for America, is financed by an ISP lobby group. Annual tax returns show that a foundation controlled by lobbyists from the cell phone industry, called MyWireless.org, has contributed to ACI since 2010.

Apparently, "consumers" means something rather different to this group.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Baron von Robber, Jun 9th, 2014 @ 11:02am

    Why astroturf?

    Because if reality is against you, it's time to invent reality.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    Michael, Jun 9th, 2014 @ 11:07am

    reclassification would lead to "chronic underinvestment" in broadband services

    This is absolutely correct. Going nowhere leads you to exactly where you are.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 9th, 2014 @ 11:09am

    Bear in mind that Verizon's coming really close to failing to meets its contracted obligations in NY, that tells you everything you need to know.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    identicon
    Michael, Jun 9th, 2014 @ 11:09am

    Re: Why astroturf?

    I reject your reality and substitute my own

    - Adam Savage

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    identicon
    Michael, Jun 9th, 2014 @ 11:10am

    Re:

    So they are actually currently meeting their obligations somewhere?

    That's HUGE news!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 9th, 2014 @ 11:13am

    Remember when Susan Crawford ran for FCC chair? And Obama chose Wheeler?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    identicon
    Rich, Jun 9th, 2014 @ 11:16am

    Re: Re: Why astroturf?

    Who was quoting either the 1974 Doctor Who episode, "The Deadly Assassin" or 1984 film, "The Dungeonmaster."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    icon
    Karl Bode (profile), Jun 9th, 2014 @ 11:21am

    Re:

    Sadly she supported Wheeler's nomination in a letter sent to the Obama administration, for reasons I'm still trying to understand...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    icon
    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Jun 9th, 2014 @ 11:26am

    Two can play

    We should start organizations with names like "The Industry Council" or "The Lobbyests Lobby" or "New Koch."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 9th, 2014 @ 11:26am

    "which conveniently ignored all of the subsidies and tax-breaks the government gave them to install their networks in the first place."

    America: Socialize the costs and privatize the benefits.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    identicon
    PRMan, Jun 9th, 2014 @ 12:03pm

    Re: Re:

    The NSA called...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 9th, 2014 @ 12:20pm

    Re: Re:

    No, the deadline is sometimes within the next month for FIOS in the stste of NY. That was set well over 10 years ago.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 9th, 2014 @ 12:47pm

    Re:

    Why don't we have a sad but true button?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    identicon
    no one, Jun 9th, 2014 @ 12:55pm

    Re:

    Sadly this is true because as rgulated entity, for profit companies have only one way to make money, invest in technology once and then squeeze the living shit out of it until there's nothing left to squeeze. Need an example?

    Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) was antiquated until deregulation and didn't get much better because there still wasn't competition. Since there was no incentive to increase profits, the telco's did little to spend capital. They also charged outrageous fees for your own hand set, extra jacks, fought to allow consumers to buy their own fax machines and answering machines preferring to instead sell overprices items.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    identicon
    Michael, Jun 9th, 2014 @ 1:00pm

    Re: Re:

    Not to mention POTS is STILL better than VOIP telephone service.

    Do you think you can plug a phone into a CAT5 cable you find laying in the water of a flooded basement, plug a phone into it, and get a dial tone? I've actually done that with a POTS line.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), Jun 9th, 2014 @ 2:51pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    "Not to mention POTS is STILL better than VOIP telephone service."

    Better how? I know that POTS has better uptime reliability, but perhaps I missed some key improvements. I don't know personally, since I'm on Vonage since 2001 or so. But just to check, does POTS now offer:

    - free call waiting
    - free call forwarding
    - free voicemail
    - voicemail sent to email as attachment
    - web portal management interface
    - call hunt
    - multi-device simultaneous ring
    - mobility of the phone number to other homes or biz
    - ability to access your phone line from a laptop
    - free nationwide long distance
    - free Intra-LATA long distance
    - free long distance to a dozen or more other countries
    - email or call center customer support
    - support of wifi phones
    - $12 a month pricing

    Cuz then it WOULD be totally better than my VOIP.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), Jun 9th, 2014 @ 3:36pm

    This is the way it's done. Right?

    Isn't this just in the tradition of the Clear Skies Initiative and the Healthy Forests Initiative of the Bush administration?

    Oh and the Discovery Institute and its ilk which tries to sound all sciencey but actually suppresses science when it conflicts with biblical myth.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), Jun 9th, 2014 @ 9:21pm

    Play their game

    So if we want to lobby against astroturfing, we have to start an organization called Americans for Astroturfing? Is this like a law or something?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 9th, 2014 @ 11:01pm

    Kinda like, The Democratic People's Republic of Korea or People's Republic of China.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 12:27am

    Ma Bell brought her whole family to the congressional hearing. How quaint. I don't care if Ma Bell represents her own interests, but please don't claim to be representing the interests of common folk. I guess living a lie is the whole point of astroturfing. Ma Bell is lying through her tooth.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Jun 10th, 2014 @ 7:14am

    Re: Re: Re:

    "Not to mention POTS is STILL better than VOIP telephone service."

    AND it's still better than cell phone service.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Jun 10th, 2014 @ 7:18am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    I believe that Michael's point is that VoIP relies on the internet to work. The internet is a far less robust infrastructure than the old phone network -- POTS keeps running when the power fails, and very often during major catastrophes that wipes out other infrastructure. The internet is fairly brittle and breaks when under much less strain.

    All of your points are about the business model, not about the POTS network itself.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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