There's been plenty of propaganda concerning the net neutrality fight, but with FCC boss Tom Wheeler finally making it official that the FCC is going to move to reclassify broadband, it's kicked into high gear of ridiculousness. An astroturfing front group that's anti-net neutrality is trying to make a "viral" anti-net neutrality video, and it did so in the most bizarre way, by making an attempted parody porno video, based on the classic "cable guy" porno trope. The video is sorta SFW, since the "joke" is that "the government" stops the homeowner from getting naked with the cable guy, but people at work might still question what the hell you're watching:
The video makes no sense at all. You get the sense that some not particularly internet savvy (or, really, clever at all) telco wonks got together and said "how do we make a viral video -- I know, let's pretend it's a porn film!" And then tried to shoehorn in some sort of message. But the "message" appears to be that whoever put together the video doesn't know anything about what net neutrality is.
Next up, we've got a not quite as bad, but still cringe-worthy attempt by CTIA, the lobbying arm of the mobile operators, which has been arguing that mobile broadband shouldn't be covered by the new net neutrality rules (a fight it appears it has lost), posting a ridiculously poorly acted "shill in the street interview" video, in which really bad actors pretend to be average people answering questions about their mobile service. It's clearly scripted, given the overexaggerated reactions and stilted dialog. The funniest bit comes in the first "interview" where this bad actor (who looks like a DC lobbyist) in a DC lobbyist video claims, "Well, Washington isn't actually known for its next-gen thinking, now is it?" No, "real person," it's not.
There's also the second interview, with the woman who shows up pre-shocked, and proceeds to "complain" about the totally fake "new taxes" that are not actually going to show up because of Title II reclassification. And then there's the third guy, who, when prompted to take off his earbuds when the "interviewer" sits next to him and asks what he's listening to, says: "Pandora.... it's free." Because, yes, that's how every "real person" describes what they're listening to. By the price of it. And then, again, unprompted, he explains how great it is that his mobile operator doesn't make him pay for data when listening to Pandora (leaving out the fact that this is because his operator has set in place artificially low data caps). The video concludes with the "regular guy" interviewer saying, "There you have it, the vast majority of Americans are against stagnation, against higher fees and against fewer choices."
Of course, the video doesn't show that at all. And of course, putting wireless under Title II doesn't mean any of those things. In fact, it could mean more choices and lower fees. But who needs details when you have "real" shills in the street?
Finally, we've got an infographic from another front group, called "Mobile Future," whose staffers just happen to include former CTIA and US Telecom Association employees (coincidence, I'm sure). The infographic pretends to show how startups will be hindered by Title II, because now companies can (they claim) take your startup to the FCC to have your service declared unlawful, and you'll have to hire telecom lawyers, and no VC will fund you. Here's a snippet:
This is, of course, complete hogwash. Why not take it from a real venture capitalist, like Fred Wilson (early money into Twitter, Tumblr, Soundcloud, Kickstarter, Etsy and many more). He pointed out the real story of what would happen in a world without these net neutrality rules, where it would make life nearly impossible for startups, because they wouldn't be able to afford to pay the big ISPs to get equal treatment to the major players. Who do you trust? A bunch of DC insiders who have never worked in the startup or venture investing world (their staff appears to include entirely DC-based folks who have either worked in the government or lobbying organizations) or one of the most famous venture capitalists around?
The simple fact is that net neutrality rules help startups. Startups aren't going to have to hire a lawyer to go to the FCC because these are rules for broadband providers, not the services built on top of the broadband. The infographic is pure FUD from an astroturf group acting like sore losers.
I imagine we'll continue to see more of this kind of propaganda, but the laughably bad quality of it all just goes to show how incredibly desperate they've become.
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."
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.
We've talked plenty of times about CreativeAmerica, the astroturf group that keeps pretending that it's a "grassroots" group. It was setup mainly to push for SOPA/PIPA in an attempt to pretend that "normal people" rather than just Hollywood fatcats supports SOPA/PIPA. Just one problem: it was so obviously run by Hollywood fatcats that no one ever took it seriously. It was slickly produced, was backed by the big studios, and all the big movie studios promoted it directly as well. Its executive director, Mike Nugent, came directly from Disney, where he was the company's Senior VP of anti-piracy. Meanwhile, its "communications director," Craig Hoffman came straight from... you guessed it... the MPAA. And before that he worked at Warner Bros. Grassroots!
Yes, that's right folks, the group that is pretending to be grassroots, but is really an astroturf organization -- which has bent over backwards to insist that SOPA/PIPA were not about censorship at all -- has hired someone from the very US government agency that has been using similar copyright laws to seize and censor websites. Perhaps his nickname is "grassroots"?
And the group wonders why actual artists aren't buying what they're selling. Perhaps rather than staffing it with former studio execs, MPAA lackeys and law enforcement censors... why not try actual content creators next time? Oh, perhaps it's because lots of actual content creators know that SOPA/PIPA are bad ideas.
It's really quite amazing how frequently those who support more draconian copyright laws seem to be caught up in ethically dubious copying. We just had the example of the Hollywood astroturf group, CreativeAmerica, pretty blatantly "remixing" an anti-SOPA email alert from Public Knowledge, and turning it into a pro-SOPA argument. But this next one seems even worse. SOPA supporters, such as the MPAA and the very same Creative America, seemed overjoyed to point folks to an opinion piece in the Salt Lake Tribune by the state's attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, claiming to support SOPA and PIPA.
Just one little tiny problem... there appears to be a fair bit of evidence that Shurtleff "copied" his work from elsewhere and simply "remixed" the work of others. TorrentFreak goes into great detail how many of the statements in the opinion piece supposedly written by Shurtleff, have appeared elsewhere from pro-SOPA folks.
To back up this claim we will highlight a few sentences from the Attorney General’s article, and compare them with those previously delivered by the MPAA and affiliated pro-copyright groups.
The first sentence that caught our attention is: “It will take a strong, sustained effort to stop Internet thieves and profiteers.”
Strong words, but also familiar ones. In fact, former MPAA President Bob Pisano uttered exactly the same words in 2010 when he congratulated the Senate Judiciary Committee with unanimously approving the COICA bill, the predecessor to SOPA and PIPA.
They go on to find lots of other rather complex phrases that show up in both Shurtleff's "new" opinion piece... and lobbying efforts from times past. In fact, the whole thing seems like a classic "remix" -- cutting and pasting lots of works from elsewhere, and creating something "new" out of it. Who knows if this reaches the legal standard for copyright infringement... but it certainly calls into serious question either the legitimacy of the op-ed... or, the competence of Shurtleff. Once again, we think such remixing is good and should be allowed. But it's pretty crazy to argue for laws like SOPA... and do so with what certainly sounds like plagiarized phrases from elsewhere.
The supporters of SOPA/PIPA practically shoved each other aside this week to hype up a "study" released by the "American Consumer Institute,*" which claims that Americans support things like SOPA and PIPA by a wide margin (basically 80%). Of course, the actual survey used suggests no such thing. If it were true, there wouldn't be so much grass roots opposition to the bills (and hardly any grassroots support).
The details of ACI's study suggest why it got the responses it wanted -- it's basically because they asked ridiculous, leading questions where the answers are obvious, rather than asking anything about what people are really concerned about. You can see the full results here, and the questions have nothing to do with what SOPA/PIPA actually do. These are the three key ones:
3. Would you support or oppose legislation that would increase criminal penalties for anyone who knowingly sells counterfeit goods, equipment and parts to the U.S. military?
A. Support (80%)
B. Oppose (14%)
C. DK/Refuse (6%)
4. Would you support or oppose legislation that would increase criminal penalties for anyone who knowingly sells counterfeit drugs and medicines to Americans online?
A. Support (81%)
B. Oppose (13%)
C. DK/Refuse (6%)
5. Would you support or oppose legislation that would help block foreign-based Internet websites from trafficking counterfeit goods, content or services to Americans?
A. Support (79%)
B. Oppose (14%)
C. DK/Refuse (7%)
Note, first of all, that nowhere does ACI ever actually say what the current criminal penalties are for such offenses. That right there makes the whole thing pointless. How can you ask someone if penalties should be worse or better when most respondents have no idea what the current penalties are. It's like me asking you "do you think I should walk my dog more or less each day." Since you have no clue how much I currently walk my dog, it's a totally meaningless question. You don't ask an "increase/decrease" question when people have no idea what the starting position is... unless your intent is to mislead.
And, of course, these questions are designed to get people to say "support." In fact, the only really surprising thing is that anyone said "oppose." Nobody wants counterfeits going to the military or for counterfeit drugs to be sold to people. But those are the very narrow and extreme cases that supporters of SOPA and PIPA rely on in trying to push this bill forward. If SOPA and PIPA focused solely on stopping people from knowingly selling actual counterfeit military products and drugs, I would support the bill. I don't think many people would oppose it. The problem is that the bill goes way, way, way beyond that, and targets a ton of stuff that have absolutely nothing to do with the military or drugs.
Finally, when you have a five question survey, and you kick it off with the first four questions all being about "horrors" associated with the absolute worst of the worst in counterfeiting -- the parts that everyone agrees should be dealt with -- and then you finish up with a broad question about supporting legislation that would "block foreign-based Internet websites from trafficking counterfeit goods, content or services to Americans?" of course people are going to say yes. You've led them down that path.
At no point did ACI actually explain what SOPA and PIPA really do or the much wider impact they would have. Nowhere does it explain that the mechanism behind the bill is to censor websites, using the same functional system as the Great Firewall of China. Nowhere does it mention that even the leading legal experts who support SOPA and PIPA admit that the bills will censor protected speech. In other words, nowhere does the study actually ask about SOPA and PIPA. Instead, it asks about some mythical version that the US Chamber of Commerce and the MPAA want you to believe SOPA and PIPA are about.
And, of course, we've actually seen what happens when a real academic does a study that asks people about the things really found in the bill: they don't support it.
* You should be quite wary of the "names" of various groups. There are multiple reports out there that suggest that the American Consumer Institute is purely an astroturfing group, with no actual consumer mandate or interest. It came on the scene a few years ago, started by a former big telco exec, and was almost exclusively focused on putting out research that (conveniently) claimed that everything the big telcos wanted was actually wonderful for consumers. Even Consumers Union -- the well-respected publisher of Consumer Reports -- and who really does have a reputation for looking out for consumers -- has called out the American Consumer Institute and questioned why its positions seem to contradict that of "nearly every other major consumer group." Make of that what you will.
We've talked about CreativeAmerica, the astroturfing group set up by the major Hollywood studios, pretending to be a "grassroots effort" in favor of SOPA & PIPA. A month ago, we challenged the group's claim that it had "sent 100,000 letters to Congress." Turns out that wasn't true. They had sent 4,191, and then about 33,000 people had "signed a petition" that the group had set up. The math by CreativeAmerica is that each thing sent out three letters: one to your Congressional Representative and one to each of your two Senators. Of course, petitions are mostly ignored. Letters have only slightly more weight -- and based on Creative America's own math, they really only had about 1,400 people sign their letter.
We are writing to ask you for help on an issue that is one our top business priorities – content theft on the Internet, which is a major threat to the strength of our business. Our major guilds and unions are joining us in the fight to keep our businesses strong so that the tidal wave of content theft does not kill jobs. But if the current trend continues, it’s not too strong to say that this threat could adversely affect our business relationship with you.
Grassroots effort? When NBC Universal's General Counsel, Rick Cotton -- who famously once claimed that piracy was destroying the lowly corn farmer, since people who watch pirated movies don't eat popcorn (or something) -- is threatening suppliers who don't sign on? That's not grassroots. That's just insane. Now, it's true that Cotton wrote this carefully such that you can read it to suggest it means that if this law doesn't pass, NBC Universal's business will be in so much trouble that it has to shut down or cut off deals with suppliers. But it seems pretty clear that the obvious implication is: sign this or we may no longer do business with you.
But, given that "the big guns" at NBC Universal are pushing all their suppliers to directly sign (or else!) the letter found at CreativeAmerica's site, you might think that a lot more people would have signed on. Especially over the last month, with SOPA making so much news. So we went and checked.
It appears that 4,673 letters have been sent. A month ago it was 4,191. That's a grand total of 482 new letters sent since we last checked almost a month ago. That means in a month, with this story making major news every which way... and the major studios putting a lot of marketing muscle behind it and even threatening partners to sign on, they only rustled up 482 more signatures. And, since CreativeAmerica claims that each person who signs really sends 3 letters, we should divide that by three.
That gives us 161 new signatures (actually 160.666666 etc -- which makes me wonder what happened to that extra third of a person). 161. In a month.
Meanwhile, a real grassroots campaign turned out one million emails to Congress and 87,834 calls in one day. It should be clear at this point that the public clearly does not support SOPA/PIPA, and no amount of "faking it" is driving any public support.
It appears that the big Hollywood studios/MPAA have absolutely no shame. Thankfully, employees at some of those companies recognize just how ridiculous their employers look and have been passing along some details. On Wednesday, Warner Bros. announced third quarter profits (not revenue) of $822 million, representing a 57% increase on last year. Revenues were $7.07 billion, 11% higher than last year. The company sent out an email to employees talking about how it was "another record" quarter for the company. Then, very soon after that email went out, another email went out, telling employees about how difficult life was at Warner Bros. these days due to the scourge of "content theft," and urging people to support the astroturfing group CreativeAmerica.
In July, we informed you about the creation of and Warner Bros.’ involvement with Creative America, a grassroots coalition uniting the entertainment community and others against one of the biggest threats we face as an industry: content theft. Thank you to those of you who have already joined and supported Creative America. This is an important first step, but there’s still more we can do.
Thieves in the U.S. and abroad continue to make millions of dollars off our work, talents and creativity. For instance, “The Big Bang Theory” is one of the most popular targets of digital content thieves, with more than 600,000 illegal digital downloads thus far in 2011. Meanwhile, “The Hangover Part II” was illegally downloaded some 700,000 times in the first five months since its theatrical release.
Content theft doesn’t just affect a single show or film or even studio. It affects residual benefits, pension funds and health plans as well as jobs that our industry supports—whether directly or in ancillary markets and businesses. Therefore, it’s in all of our interests to stand behind Creative America.
I dunno. WB, if you've just made $822 million in profits alone, perhaps you could donate some of that to residuals? Ha Ha, who am I kidding? Movie studios never pay residuals. Remember, this is Warner Bros. And part of the reason it was so profitable this quarter was the latest Harry Potter movie. But last year, we got to analyze the accounting on an earlier Harry Potter movie, showing how Warner Bros. played with the numbers to take a movie that brought in $938 million and still let Warner Bros. claim a $167 million "loss," through highly questionable accounting, designed almost entirely to avoid paying royalties. The trick, of course, is to set up each movie as its own "corporation" that has to pay the parent studio "fees" for certain "services." You keep ratcheting up those fees, and the studio makes a ton, but the "company" that is the movie can always claim a loss to avoid paying royalties.
Honestly, if you know anything about the numbers, you'd know that Warner Bros. is a much larger threat to residuals and other things like health plans and jobs, than any file sharing by some kids who'd never pay to see the movie anyway. SOPA/E-PARASITE isn't going to help people in the business get paid. Execs, sure. But not everyone else. Not by a long shot.
For a little over a week now, we've been receiving emails from various actors and musicians, telling us that they've been getting emails from various entertainment industry giants, telling them to join a new "grassroots" coalition called CreativeAmerica, whose main purpose is to advocate for passing the PROTECT IP censorship bill. The whole thing is clearly an astroturf campaign. It was registered via domains-by-proxy to hide who really bought the domain name. It highlights the video that was secretly created and owned by NBC Universal. It includes the totally false claim that "there's no such thing as a free movie."
If you dig into the website to figure out who's really behind it, it claims that it's a "grassroots organization," but fails to name a single creative individual who was behind putting the group together. Instead, it lists out the following companies and organizations who really put the site together (amusingly, they even block you from cutting and pasting this part, so I just retyped it -- meaning I circumvented their DRM... come at me, entertainment industry):
CBS Corporation, NBC Universal, the Screen Actors Guild, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox, Viacom, the Walt Disney Company and Warner Bros. Entertainment
Well, well. That's not a grassroots effort, folks. Now, the site also includes various unions, including the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild and IATSE (stage hands, etc.). But these are the old school, out of touch unions that who have done little to nothing to help their members adapt to the times (often doing the opposite). Do we see any of the actually creative folks who have embraced new technologies, new methods of distribution and new business models? Nope.
In the meantime, how can the website seriously claim that it's a grassroots effort when it has every single major Hollywood Studio behind it. Do they think that people are stupid? And should we remind people that these are the same studios who have all sorts of scammy tricks for "Hollywood accounting" to make sure even the most successful films are never seen as profitable, allowing them to avoid paying royalties to the actual creative folks.
Next, if you dig into the website, they have a "send a letter to your elected officials" thing. And the real evidence that it's not a real grassroots effort? Just like other faux grassroots efforts, those agreeing to send the letter have no option to edit the letter. When groups like Demand Progress and EFF let you send letters about PROTECT IP, they let you edit them to your liking -- trusting people to express themselves.
But, this "Creative America" apparently does not trust its own members to be creative. The letter is 100% locked down. You can only send their text. Honestly, if a group supposedly representing creators won't even let its own members express themselves freely, you know that it's not actually about protecting "creative" America.
This is not a grassroots effort. This is not about protecting "Creative America." This is about protecting a few megacorporations who are scared of new innovations, afraid of their dwindling monopoly rents, and trying to force the rest of the world to go back to the way things used to be.
A company called Cash4Gold, which pays people for unwanted gold items, gained some notoriety this week on the back of its Super Bowl ad, which featured Ed McMahon with a golden toilet and MC Hammer with a gold medallion of himself wearing a gold medallion. But it's also getting some more press online after somebody doing online "marketing" for it apparently emailed a guy that had written an unflattering story about the company and offered to pay him to take it down or rewrite it (via Boing Boing). The search results for the company feature some pretty unfavorable stories about it, but evidently instead of cleaning up its act, Cash4Gold would rather just splash out some Cash4Silence. This comes a few weeks after a Belkin employee got busted trying to pay people to write positive reviews about its products on Amazon. It's hardly surprising that companies do this sort of thing, but the potential downside of getting caught (not to mention the ethical concerns) should give them pause.
A political reporter for the Star Telegram in Texas noticed something rather interesting after a Republican National Committee spokesperson sent over some YouTube videos, combining some news clips with snippets of comments from presidential candidates: none of the videos said who they were made by and all of them were put up under odd usernames that looked like someone had just typed randomly on a keyboard -- and all of which only had a single video uploaded. Usernames like skdjhfjhse, asdlkfjasdlk and skfhsdfsd don't exactly look like real people posting user-generated content -- and they're not. When asked about it, the RNC admitted that it had made the videos itself and posted them online. Why not post them under the RNC's official YouTube channel? Well, the RNC claims that it's because these weren't television ads, which is also the excuse it gives for not including a "the RNC is responsible for this ad" disclaimer in the videos. However, it seems pretty clear that the idea was to get these videos up for more viral purposes, suggesting something of a "grassroots" support to the production. However, if you're going to do some astroturfing, you might as well at least have the fake "grassroots" supporters look real. Merely typing in a bunch of characters from the central row of your keyboard is a pretty immediate tipoff that these aren't real people.