Saturday, October 24, 2009

John McCain's 'Series of Tubes'

The "Maverick" just played his hand on Net Neutrality, and the cards reveal a man who's outsider image doesn't quite add up.

On Thursday, Sen. John McCain introduced legislation to kill the open Internet, the deceptively named "Internet Freedom Act." The bill would stop all FCC efforts to have an open and public discussion about proposed Net Neutrality rules.

This comes from a senator who has received more money ($894,379) from AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and their lobbyists than any other member of Congress.

McCain also infamously told the media that he is "illiterate" when it comes to using the Internet and computers.

If this latest round of sock puppetry sounds an echo, it's because McCain seems to be channeling Sen. Ted Stevens' "series of tubes" gaffe from 2006.

Stevens' comments erupted forth during a Commerce Committee hearing as the Senator tried to squash efforts to establish Net Neutrality rules in Congress. But rather than beating back popular support for an open Internet, Stevens exposed himself to be a senator who is disconnected from any understanding of the Internet, but determined nonetheless to push forth the agenda of those that filled his campaign coffers.

As it was in 2006, social media has noticed, and is now awash with criticism of yet another Senator getting cozy with special interests. (You can join the critique here.) More mainstream media are starting to pick up on the McCain sellout as well.

This latest episode exposes the right and wrong sides of the Net Neutrality debate. And it poses a fundamental question to everyone:

Whom do you want to determine the future of the Internet?

A senator who is little more than a mouthpiece for the same phone and cable lobby that's vying to rig the Internet and control your clicks, or the more than 1.6 million people who have called for Net Neutrality -- a group that includes the geeks who created the Internet to be an open platform.

McCain has built his reputation as an alleged "straight shooter." If he is truly a person of integrity, he would return the tainted $894,379, spike this bad bill and get behind Net Neutrality.

But don't be surprised if this "Maverick" just keeps playing the cards that AT&T has dealt him.

Friday, October 23, 2009

AT&T Asks Employees To Fake It

AT&T has "asked' its employees to fake it in the fight against Net Neutrality.

The company’s top policy officer sent a memo to workers on Monday urging them to hide their company affiliation before posting anti-Net Neutrality comments to the Federal Communication Commission’s Web site.

"We encourage you, your family and friends to join the voices telling the FCC not to regulate the Internet," AT&T Senior Executive Vice President James Cicconi wrote in an internal communiqué forwarded to Free Press (and posted here). "It can be done through a personal e-mail account by going to and clicking on the ‘Join the Discussion’ link."

On Thursday, the FCC will vote to proceed on a rulemaking process that will establish the Net Neutrality rules that millions of Americans have been fighting for since 2005.

And AT&T is going crazy at the prospect of an Internet that they can't control. The memo to AT&T employees, coming from one of the company’s most senior executives, would be hard to think of as merely a suggestion.

If that weren’t bad enough, Cicconi urges them to choose from a list of talking points sanctioned by the PR department -- fearful perhaps of what employees might say if they went off script.

Some of the talking points are hard to read without rolling your eyes.

For example: Cicconi suggests that employees write that Net Neutrality will “jeopardize efforts to deliver high-speed Internet services to every American.” Yet he’s unable to provide any rationale for this claim, other than saying that universal access is a goal that “can't be met with rules that halt private investment in broadband infrastructure.”


AT&T is loath to mention that it made considerable network investment when it had to abide by Net Neutrality conditions, and invested considerably less when it didn’t.

As a requirement of its 2006 merger with BellSouth, AT&T agreed to operate a neutral network (by adhering to the four principles of the FCC’s Internet Policy Statement as well as a fifth principle of nondiscrimination) for two years.

AT&T’s network investments increased immediately following the imposition of the Net Neutrality merger condition and continued to rise over the two years of the merger agreement. When the neutrality condition expired on Dec. 29, 2008, the company sharply reduced its investment.

So when Cicconi says that Net Neutrality means no buildout, the opposite is true.

By pressuring the company’s employees to pose as average citizens and post AT&T talking points, Cicconi is asking them to be doubly deceptive. Not only are they asked to hide their true identities but also to spread misinformation on behalf of a company that seems to be getting more desperate by the day.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

'Blue Bell' Dems Must Fix Mistake on Net Neutrality

Every now and then Democrats in Washington forget whom they really work for.

Friday was one such day as several dozen Democratic representatives buckled to phone and cable lobbyists and signed on to a letter designed to sow doubt about Net Neutrality.

Too often, in complicated matters of communications policy, members will take industry lobbyists at their word and sign on to whatever is foisted upon them. The phone and cable lobby funnel so much cash into campaign coffers that it’s easier to wave off the wonkery and just go along.

But these Dems should have thought twice before signing this letter (pdf). It was orchestrated by the phone and cable lobby as a warning shot across the bow of new Democratic majority at the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC’s three Democrats are poised to fulfill Obama's pledge to make Net Neutrality a reality. It's an action that has received strong support from Democratic leadership across the board. If the FCC Dems succeed it would mark a massive win for the millions of people and many progressives who have fought so hard for this.

But deep-pocketed telco lobbyists have launched an all-out assault to derail the FCC. Phone and cable companies have hired more than 500 lobbyists, spent tens of millions of dollars, and unleashed sleazy Astroturf groups to mislead politicians, distort the facts, and resurrect long-debunked myths.

One letter signer, Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado, may have just realized his mistake. He is now in damage control here on DailyKos where he wrote:
I strongly support Net Neutrality and have been working on a letter to circulate advocating a regulatory approach that keeps the internet public and free… I'll post my own letter on dailykos later this week, and encourage you to ask your reps to sign it.
This new letter is a good start. I can't wait to read it. But if Polis truly wants to make amends, he should sign on with Rep. Waxman, Eshoo and Markey as co-sponsors of the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009 (HR 3458). He should also write a separate letter to Chairman Genachowski of the FCC pledging his support of strong Net Neutrality rules.

The other Dems who signed Friday’s letter should do the same.

The fight for Net Neutrality is very real, and it's getting nasty. You can send a message to Washington by adding your name to the 2-million-person call to action.

And if you see your representatives' names at the bottom of that telco letter, you might want to give them a call and remind them who's really the boss.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Where Does Astroturf Go To Die?

How do we rid Washington of astroturf? It's a blight that's spread over the Capitol like kudzu, smothering genuine public debate under a tangle of misinformation.

Sporting names like "Tea Party Patriots," "Energy Citizens" and "Americans for Broadband," astroturf groups have pocketed millions from industry to prop up the status quo and denounce an overhaul of health care, curbs to carbon emissions and Net Neutrality protections.

These fake grassroots groups have scored some amazing successes. Working together with lobbyists and a pack of sputtering media pundits, they've bullied Washington's timid leadership -- on both the left and the right -- into inaction, or worse, outright opposition to the changes that a majority of Americans, in poll after poll, say they want.

Salon journalists Gabriel Winant and Tim Bell chronicle the way ideas forged in the crucible of Fox News and astroturf become GOP gospel. Rolling Stone reporter Tim Dickinson traces the money that connects astroturf lies to corporate checking accounts.

But what happens when the corporate spigot gets turned off? Does astroturf still wield its power to frighten politicians and sway the media, or does it simply wither up and blow away?

The Rise and Fall of 'HandsOff'

The story of one noted astroturf group is instructive. In 2006, the world was first introduced to "Hands Off the Internet," a well-oiled group led by former Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry and funded by AT&T and other Internet service providers.

HandsOff pulled out all of the standard astroturf tricks to stifle popular enthusiasm for Net Neutrality - the principle that keeps Internet users, not ISPs, in control of the Net. HandsOff purchased millions of dollars' worth of ads in trade journals and the Washington Post to spin Net Neutrality as a government crackdown on the free-flowing Web.

McCurry worked his media connections to appear before cameras as an "independent expert" carrying on the legacy of the Clinton administration. He and his HandsOff Co-chair Christopher Wolf wrote Op-Eds for prominent publications like the New York Times without disclosing who was punching their meal tickets. They went before the cameras of mainstream cable stations. Soon, politicians were regurgitating HandsOff talking points (fed directly to the astroturf group by AT&T) without blinking.

HandsOff figured it was easy enough to extend these deceptive practices into cyberspace. The group built a Web site with a grassroots feel, blanketed all the leading blogs with ads, and dispatched McCurry to prominent online sites to trade on his reputation as a loyal Democrat.

What the Netroots Hates Most

The only problem with this strategy: HandsOff forgot about the netroots and their loathing of fakes -- a loathing that would come into full force as readers at Huffington Post, MyDD, DailyKos and FireDogLake reacted to McCurry's phony overtures.

McCurry first submitted a commentary to Huffington Post (he's since removed it but his follow-up post is here), in which he called Net Neutrality "a solution in search of a problem."

Readers weren't fooled. A cursory peak behind the curtain of revealed a sponsor list of telecommunications companies and industry front groups. McCurry's post soon received hundreds of angry comments accusing him of "selling out" his progressive beliefs to corporate interests.

Matt Stoller, then writing for the popular progressive blog MyDD, led the charge. Stoller is a bloggers' blogger, who has worked tirelessly to organize the netroots and alert them to new issues, messages and ideas. Author Malcolm Gladwell of The Tipping Point might classify him as a connector -- like Paul Revere on his midnight ride. Stoller sounded the alarm and people listened.

In a post on MyDD titled "Mike McCurry: Mouthpiece for Deception," Stoller accused McCurry of operating in bad faith: "McCurry is deceiving the public, and it's making my blood boil," Stoller wrote. "Working as a lobbyist for telecommunications companies is fine... What's NOT fine is that he's misrepresenting the fight."

Other prominent bloggers like Atrios, David Sirota and Arianna Huffington piled on. Soon, McCurry's byline stopped appearing on Huffington Post altogether, and he was so frequently called out in public appearances for shilling that he retreated into the safe enclave of phone- and cable-company sponsored events.

Make Phoniness a Liability

Within a year, the companies that funded HandsOff realized that it was more of a liability than an asset. Lobbying payments to McCurry and Wolf dried up -- from more than a half million dollars in 2006 to nothing in 2008, according to the Lobbying Disclosure Act Database.

By then, both McCurry and Wolf were long gone. McCurry had scampered off to shill for another AT&T front group; Wolf continues to lobby for corporate interests as a highly paid D.C. lawyer. Both have scrubbed HandsOff from their online resumes.

And while some functionary still posts a rare update to the group's darkly illegible blog, the rest of the site has fallen into disrepair, serving more as a tombstone for astroturf gone awry than as a legitimate voice in the debate.

This epithet for HandsOff is itself a testament to the power of an open Internet. The group's efforts to mislead the public would have gone unnoticed were it not for an active netroots, ready to call out fraud in the mainstream media and speak up in support of Net Neutrality.

But is that enough? While this astroturf group is dead, the companies behind it have simply moved their chips to other front operations.

Like the plastic product itself, astroturf never really dies. As long as corporate special interests see value in bankrolling phony front groups, they will. And as long as mainstream media air astroturf spokespeople without revealing their sponsors, the business of fakery will remain a feature of Washington's political landscape.

The good news is that more people are becoming aware of the problem and taking to the Internet to kill astroturf before it tightens its hold on democracy.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Glenn Beck's Crazy Train Makes Stop Out Back

Today, I'm especially proud of the work that I do.

You too can be a part of our sinister plot by becoming a member of the Free Press Action Fund.

UPDATE: This pretty much says it all:

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Washington Post Needs to Come Clean on Net Neutrality

A Washington Post blog post published Monday hits on one central reason for making Net Neutrality the law.

In "Protecting Free Speech in the Digital Age, " guest blogger Dawn Nunziato says that free expression on the Internet is too important to be subject to the whims of powerful phone and cable companies -- companies that have already demonstrated their willingness to block new ideas and innovations via the Web.

Nunziato is spot on. But a blog post doesn't go nearly far enough to right the wrong the Post's editors committed the Monday before. On Sept. 28, the paper printed a full-fledged editorial against Net Neutrality without revealing to readers that the Washington Post Co. has an economic incentive to block online speech.

The Post editorial, "The FCC's Heavy Hand," was gift wrapped for the narrow special interests of the influential phone and cable lobby. And it's been cited ad nauseum by phone and cable company shills intent on removing the last protection of an open Internet.

The Post's editors state that Net Neutrality would hurt investment in a "vibrant and well-functioning marketplace" when, in fact, the opposite is true: Carriers working under neutrality conditions have invested tens of billions of dollars in network buildout and improvements.

(For more on this and other industry falsehoods read our recent brief: Digital Déjà Vu: Old Myths about Net Neutrality.)

The Post editorial suffers not only from inaccuracy, but also from lack of disclosure. One of the companies that stands to gain from a world without Net Neutrality is Cable One, an Internet service provider active in 19 states that hopes to pad its already considerable profits by stifling the free flow of online communications. One of the principal owners of Cable One is - you guessed it -- the Washington Post Co.

Cable One Chief Executive Tom Might has been an outspoken opponent of Net Neutrality, calling it "a very, very clever D.C. campaign" designed to intimidate politicians "because it sounds so wonderful, like Mom and apple pie."

Given the Post's recent controversy over paid editorial salons, the paper would do well to better mind the firewall that allegedly separates news and editorial operations from business back offices.

Readers should demand that the Post's ombudsman and editorial page editor clarify this obvious oversight. You can prompt them to respond by sending an e-mail to: Fred Hiatt, the editor of the Post's editorial page, can be reached at .

The Post needs to come clean whenever it presents as honest opinion a view that also protects its commercial interests.