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More Paranoia About Net Neutrality Attempts to Scare Conservatives

Phillip Dampier August 17, 2009 Astroturf, Editorial & Site News, Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't 3 Comments

astroturf1The astroturfers remain hard at work trying to convince conservatives the best way to oppose Obama Administration telecommunications policies would be to adopt industry-friendly views opposing Net Neutrality.

The latest to buy in is The American Spectator, publishing a piece this morning titled, “The Great Regrouping.”  In it, The Prowler casts Net Neutrality as part of the Obama Administration’s plot to impose government controls on the Internet, representing a “grave threat … to free speech and conservatives’ ability to organize and mobilize politically.”

During the last day the House was in session before leaving for its August recess, Rep. Ed Markey’s staff introduced HR 3458, the so-called “Internet Freedom Preservation Act,” which would essentially enable government control of the Internet, treating the networks as a government-managed utility. (For more information about “net neutrality,” read this interview that one of the key “net neutrality” supporters gave to a Canadian socialist publication.) The Markey legislation is considered the last piece of what some conservatives consider to be Democrat and progressive attempts to control the Internet and limit citizens’ ability to use the networks to organize and oppose their agenda.

The bill was introduced the same week it was revealed that the Obama Commerce Department was demanding from the phone and cable companies highly detailed data about private citizens’ Internet and broadband connections as part of plans of “map” broadband networks across the country.

Stop the Cap! readers will recognize the source of the link The Prowler promotes — it’s from the very same Heartland Institute astroturfer we chased last week, who was arguing Net Neutrality was a tool to achieve “socialist utopia.”  I pulled a muscle just reading that overreach.

My direct response can be found below the fold.  Suffice to say, this is an example of classic astroturfing at work:

  1. A company’s government affairs department recognizes a potential threat to their business model through government oversight or regulation, or sees a financial benefit from industry-favorable legislation or deregulation.  It considers a range of options, including direct lobbying, consumer outreach, and hiring experienced “inside the beltway” expertise.
  2. The company approves a plan of action and frequently hires a Washington-based public relations firm.  That firm usually either has direct contact or close associations with astroturf organizations.  As part of the PR firm’s fee, they assure the company its message will be delivered in ways that help steer any public policy debate towards their corner, using astroturfers to reach both consumers and media suspicious of a direct industry appeal, but will listen to an “independent” group.
  3. Suddenly, supposedly independent “public interest” groups start beating the drums.  Some speak directly to consumers raising doubts and fears about regulatory matters, others attempt to suggest the public needs to get behind industry-friendly positions for their own benefit.  Press releases and interview opportunities are made available to the media.  Astroturfers with a known political angle wrap industry positions in ideological shells, using them to illustrate a broader ideological point.
  4. Most importantly, carefully avoid exposing the direct industry connection.  Industry executives don’t want to admit they are paying for these campaigns.  PR firms help shield the source of the industry money that flows into astroturf groups, and astroturfers work hard to avoid disclosing where the money is coming from.  Even elected officials who take an industry friendly view do not want to directly reference the companies writing big campaign contribution checks.  They’ll cite those supposedly independent “consulting” and “research” and “public interest” groups when reading the talking points.

Unfortunately for them, this convenient public interest shell game has been exposed.

In today’s case:

Industry opposed to Net Neutrality -> Astroturfer Groups -> Outreach to fuel opposition to Net Neutrality for “consumer” or “ideological” reasons.

My direct response to The American Spectator:

There are some legitimate debates over the issues of health care and how to best address the climate change matter, but the opposition laid out to Net Neutrality in this piece is right out of the X Files.

Net Neutrality is one of those issues that honestly isn’t a “right” or “left” issue, which is why a lot of conservative and liberal groups have come to agreement that nobody – not the government or corporate providers, should be messing around with legal content placed online.  I would not want a service provider demanding additional money from any group, be it the ACLU or the John Birch Society, in order to assure equal access to their respective content.

What Net Neutrality guarantees is that service providers cannot monetize an Internet that treats some content better than other content, based on how much money is paid.  One of the founding principles of the Internet is that all traffic is treated essentially equally.  A web page is a web page.  A file transfer is a file transfer.  An online application is an online application.  If the content or activity is legal, it should be allowed to flow freely irrespective of who owns that content.

AT&T, among others, sought a different system where they wanted to be paid for what was starting to look uncomfortably like a protection racket.

‘You wouldn’t want anything to happen to your website traffic, would you?  Of course, not… your traffic can’t just flow across our pipes for free,’ was essentially the attitude of that, and a few other major national providers.

For a price, your traffic would be guaranteed safe passage to subscribers (who ‘ironically’ were paying a monthly fee to gain access to online content, without the provider messing around with it.)

This piece attempts a stretch no yoga master would attempt: legislation that preserves and protects content, regardless of its ideological bent, is somehow representative of a threat to conservative organization and ideas.

That is baseless.

Indeed, the meme that Net Neutrality represents “government control” over the Internet has been manufactured by astroturfers like The Heartland Institute, and others that often have a direct financial relationship with the commercial providers that oppose Net Neutrality.  Indeed, this piece directly links to the interview with McChesney that the aforementioned Heartland Institute was overdramatizing late last week.

The suspicions about the broadband mapping project are completely out of the ball park here.  This is not a government conspiracy to spy on citizens.  It’s a mapping project to determine who exactly has broadband service, what type and what speed, and who has been left behind in a broadband backwater.  That information is important to direct any stimulus funding into underserved/unserved areas of this country so that rural America is not left behind.  Commercial providers don’t want to cough up specific information because it illustrates that this country’s broadband networks are undercompetitive — too slow and charging too much.

There is a problem with broadband mapping and it’s not from the government — it’s from the providers themselves who have direct involvement in some of the groups formed to capture some of the $200 million in mapping grants not only to line their own pockets, but to skew the map data in ways that assure stimulus money ends up flowing their way and not towards any potential competitors.  That’s potentially hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars flushed into private industry pockets to preserve the status quo – usually a duopoly of broadband providers serving most Americans.

There is a deliberate effort among some corporate interests to manufacture an artificial link between pro-consumer, non-partisan Net Neutrality with opposition to conservative causes and interests, and nothing could be further from the truth.

Net Neutrality was born as a response to service providers’ own bad behavior, and to ensure that as long as content is legal, the level playing field of ideas, accessible to all, should be protected at all costs.

The Internet — for the first time in a long time — makes it possible for any citizen to present ideas to be judged on their merits and not on how much money that citizen has to blast those ideas into the public consciousness.  That’s something I think conservatives, moderates, and liberals should all agree is worth preserving.

Echoing the sentiments of astroturfers paid to present industry-friendly positions wrapped in artificial cloaks of conservative ideology is against the interests of your own readers.

Currently there are 3 comments on this Article:

  1. TM says:

    Lobbying groups need transparency. It’s time for them to have to disclose who funds them annually or biannually. Hiding the source of the money is just like laundering drug money. They’re just hiding the true nature of what they are doing. It’s nothing more than a lie to trick you into buying into there idea even though it’s most likely bad for you in some way.

    Astroturfers are snake oil salesmen.

  2. Netizen says:

    Its also worth remembering that AT&T was for Net Neutrality before they were acquired by the owners of the last mile wires….

    http://www.savetheinternet.com/archive/2008/05/02/atts-new-tune-on-net-neutrality/

    and were similarly attacked by Bell astroturf….

    http://www.cnn.com/TECH/computing/9907/29/lobbyists.idg/index.html

    • Michael Chaney says:

      There was one paragraph on page 4 of AT&T Corp.’s FCC filing 04-36 that I thought was brilliantly written and deserving of reiteration:

      “Although the preconditions for monopoly at the applications layer might be generally absent, these services – like traditional voice and data service – require access to last-mile transport facilities for which there is generally substantial concentration of ownership. Notice ~ 5 (“The Commission must always be alert and ready to act against anticompetitive risks and discriminatory provisioning by dominant firms that result in consumer harms”). Until that concentration is dissipated, regulation of the facilities layer – regardless of the presence or absence of an IP label – will remain necessary to protect consumers and competition. Among other things, the Commission must ensure that the Internet remains open and that consumers are able to obtain access to the VoIP and other IP-enabled services, applications and devices from the full range of providers, without interference from the entities that currently control last-mile broadband transmission services.”

      ….I couldn’t have said it better AT&T

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