We've noted several times
how one of the sleaziest lobbying tactics in telecom is the co-opting of minority or "diversity" groups to support policies that actually hurt
these groups' constituents. Such theater benefits large telecom companies by presenting the illusion of broad support for what usually are extremely anti-consumer (or anti-small business and startup) policies. And it's not just minority groups being used in such fashion; telecom lobbyists have long used "retired seniors
," hearing impaired groups
and cattle rancher associations
to push bad policy.
This kind of disinformation is pervasive, incredibly destructive, and common practice in everything from the construction industry
to patent reform
But telecom lobbyists have long been masters at this particular game. It works something like this: an ISP like Comcast (or some other telecom-affiliated lobbying group) will help fund a group's new event center. In exchange, these groups parrot any policy Comcast puts forth, be it opposition to net neutrality
or support for the latest merger
. Quid pro quo obligations are never put in writing, letting these groups claim their positions only coincidentally
mirror that of their donors.
One of the key groups being used in this fashion in telecom is the "Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council," or MMTC. A few years ago the Center for Public Integrity called out the group
as being a cornerstone of cable industry "astroturf" (phony grass roots). Organization documents show the group takes money from Time Warner Cable, Comcast, and Verizon, and Comcast political operative Joe Waz
just so happens to be on the group's board of directors (surely a coincidence). The group came under fire in 2014 for forcing one website to pull critical coverage
of the group's extremely dubious behavior.
And as the FCC pushes to open the set top box market
to competition, the MMTC has once again surfaced to happily mirror the cable industry's absurd claims that more set top box competition will somehow mean less diversity in programming
. MMTC, alongside similar telecom-affiliated groups, recently fired off a letter
(pdf) to the FCC urging the agency to pause its set top efforts to first further study diversity
. Another widely circulated announcement
(pdf) parrots cable industry claims that additional set top box competition will somehow demolish the pay TV sector:
"However, the approach the Commission has chosen to ensure consumer choice in their navigation devices causes collateral damage to the entire TV network ecosystem, with the greatest harm falling upon diverse content creators on multichannel video programming distributor platforms (MVPDs, such as cable and satellite). In essence, the NPRM requires MVPDs to hand over TV Network content to online video distributors (OVDs) and third-party device manufacturers who would then be able to do what they want with the content, without negotiation, and without compensation to the creators or programmers."
For one thing, increased set top box competition benefits everybody
by bringing cheaper, better hardware to market, and putting an end to the $21 billion in captive set top rental fees the cable industry enjoys annually -- the only thing really driving cable's opposition. But increased set top box competition also puts an end to the cable walled garden, exposing all consumers to a broader and more diverse array of online streaming content than ever before
. As such the argument that the FCC's effort will somehow harm diversity simply holds absolutely no water, yet it's useful in bogging the regulator down in diversity concerns that are driven by incumbent money, not an actual interest in bridging the digital divide.
Using bogus diversity concerns to hamstring pro-consumer regulatory reform has been such a successful lobbying tactic for Comcast, the company changed the title
of top lobbyist David Cohen to "chief diversity officer." That's not to say that nothing Comcast or Cohen does ever benefits diversity, but it's hard to suggest you're helping minorities when you've been actively pitting minority and diversity groups against the interest of their own constituents
on an industrial scale for the better part of the last decade.
The FCC's quest to "unlock the cable box" is only one such area where these groups have been employed to great effect. The MMTC has also been at the heart
of cable, phone and wireless industry efforts to derail net neutrality rules. In fact the MMTC surfaced again last week when it released a "study" claiming that zero rating of content (letting select content bypass user caps) is an incredible boon to consumers and minorities everywhere
"Zero-rating is also poised to play a key role in helping to close the digital divide by addressing cost concerns and strengthening the value proposition offered to skeptical non-users, two key considerations for the millions of Americans who remain offline. The actual contours of the free data plans are fluid, responsive to consumer demand, optional, and, unlike many other online offerings, they do not rely on targeted ads to pay for the data. Accordingly, policymakers should
not categorically ignore the very real benefits of free data and should instead allow this kind of innovation and experimentation to continue without unnecessary interference.
But zero rating has the potential to do the exact opposite, something the MMTC can't be bothered to mention. The big criticism
of zero rating has been that if you give some
content, companies or services cap-exempt status, you're immediately putting other companies and organizations at a disadvantage. That's particularly problematic for startups, educational institutions, or other non-profits (like MMTC itself) that may not even be aware their services are being discriminated against.
All told, the MMTC opposes net neutrality, opposes set top box competition, and even supported AT&T's failed acquisition of T-Mobile
, which would have lessened competition in the wireless space, driving up costs for everyone. Yet when pressed, the group continues to claim these kinds of anti-consumer positions are entirely coincidental
, and in no way tied to contributions from major telecom incumbents. With friends like these...
One reason for the continued success of this kind of pay-to-play policy regurgitation is that neither regulators nor the press can be bothered to call this behavior what it is: marketing and lobbying. While DC insiders certainly are aware of what the groups are doing, they very rarely can be bothered to point out the puppetry (though reports suggest Comcast's use of such tactics played some role in scuttling
its last merger attempt). In the last fifteen years FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn is one of the only regulators to even comment on the MMTC not actually reflecting its constituents' best self interests
, though even then her comments were more passing observation than serious criticism.
But the press continues to take the lion's share of the blame when it comes to perpetuating such astroturf efforts. When the press talks about groups like the MMTC, you'd be hard pressed to notice any mention
about the organization's documented ties
to telecom industry coffers, its repeated history of opposing pro-consumer policies, or the group's relationships to what has become a very deep web of underhanded efforts
to negatively influence Internet discourse. In fact of the half dozen news outlets
commenting on the MMTC's zero rating study, the very worst the group is called is a "leading civil rights non-profit." Outlets are also all too happy to publish editorials
from "diversity advocates" without disclosing what should be obvious ties to telecom cash.
Ultimately it's up to these groups' constituents to refuse to fund organizations actively working against their best self interests, and for similar groups with integrity to continue to inform the public about this kind of behavior. In the interim it might be nice if the media could stop playing obedient lapdog to a deep and destructive network of what can only be called pay-to-play propaganda.