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.