Net Neutrality Astroturf
Coined in 2003 by Columbia University professor Tim Wu, net neutrality has become a deeply politicized catchphrase, coming to symbolize the struggle to keep the Internet free of bias in terms of the traffic it carries. You may have experienced this bias over the last year, facing YouTube videos that stumble and a banner below that informs you that the problem originates with your ISP. If service providers gain the power to treat traffic differently based on its origin, this puts them in the position to ‘tax’ companies like Netflix or to simply censor sites like Wikileaks right out of existence.
While Congress makes our national laws, a great deal of what matters to big business happens via ‘rule making’ from federal agencies, with the Federal Communications Commission regulating the Internet. These proposed rules are typically open for public comment, a formal process where interested parties register their opinions. These opinions are often generated via ‘grassroots organizing’, a bit of D.C. doublespeak that can be translated as:
Professional political operatives creating websites, letter writing campaigns, and arranging phone banking on behalf of monied interests.
Net Neutrality has been a victim of political astroturfing, and the usual suspects are milling around the crime scene, hoping you won’t notice them. Luckily we have the Sunlight Foundation on our side.
The Net Neutrality Hitman
An organization called American Commitment submitted 56.5% of the 1.6 million responses the FCC received, all via a single form letter. If you visit AmericanCommitment.org, you’ll find a slick website without even a hint of human involvement. A quick look around with the Maltego penetration tester’s toolkit validates the perception that this is an entirely synthetic entity. Email at GoDaddy, a slight departure from the norm in that the website is in the Amazon cloud, rather than quartered at Smartech in Chattanooga; a very typical profile. One of the big astroturf tells is what is missing – Maltego can’t find even one email address associated with this domain.
Yesterday the Sunlight Foundation released a report on American Commitment, which yielded this snide comment from the organization’s president, Phil Kerpen (@kerpen).
“We’re pleased that the Sunlight Foundation is finally confirming that American Commitment and Americans opposed to regulation of the Internet won the FCC comment period. Better late than never.”
PR Watch, a project of the Center for Media & Democracy, tracks PR flacks like Kerpen, and here they highlight his role in the disastrous near shutdown of our government in 2013. Think Progress notes that Kerpen was involved in the character assassination of Van Jones back in 2009. These are just a few of the first results on Kerpen; getting to the bottom of it all for even one player like him is a full-time job.
The Funding Source
American Commitment is another tentacle of the ‘Kochtopus’, an interlocking group of professional spin doctors like Kerpen and a constant shell game of 501c4 non-profits that typically exist for about eighteen months. These short term entities typically file one belated IRS form 990, but only after they have dissolved, which is a strategy to conceal their funding sources. If you spend enough time looking you will always find a trail back to Alexandria based Donor’s Trust, a tiny outfit that handles the money for those who wish to be heard, but never seen.
D.C.’s dark money cesspool exists to keep you an ignorant and compliant consumer. The handful of civil society organizations that track their dealings are too few and too small to put much of a dent in the corporate juggernaut. This graph was produced by the Center for Media & Democracy, whose own funding matches the very smallest recipients seen here.
A Post Neutrality World
There will be many deleterious effects from the loss of net neutrality, but the big one isn’t getting enough attention. The Trans Pacific Partnership, a regional trade agreement being negotiated without public comment by the twelve major nations with Pacific coastlines, contains many questionable intellectual property rules. A non-neutral internet would be just the thing to have to enforce some aspects of the TPP.
Images from CMD and Shutterstock.