Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Washington's Hidden Economy

Astroturf. You may have heard the word or even seen the fake grassroots in action.

Astroturf groups are front operations that take corporate money to promote an industry's policy agenda, covering their tracks behind phony grassroots Web fa├žades.

It's a formula for success that works in favor of deep-pocketed corporations. So much so that astroturf has spread over Washington like kudzu, stifling genuine public debate under a tangle of industry spin.

Astroturf is Washington's new invective. It's hurled left and right to dismiss groups that are engaged on both sides of President Obama's reform efforts.

"I'm pretty sure the grass is Astroturf-er over on the NetRoots [side]," wrote Phil Kerpen, policy director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative forum funded at least in part by big corporate benefactors. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow shot back, calling Kerpen's boss an astroturf "parasite" who "gets fat" taking corporate money to spread fear about reform.

But how can you tell astroturf from... well, the real grassroots?

It should be as simple as following the money. That trail usually leads directly to ExxonMobil (in the case of "Energy Citizens"), Peabody Energy (the "Clean Coal" campaign), the health insurance industry ("Patients United Now"), phone and cable companies ("Information Technology and Innovation Foundation"), and to any number of corporate special interests that are well practiced in Washington's art of deception.

The D.C. Dodge

But following the money is exactly what these groups don’t want you to do. Even when pressed, astroturf spokespeople duck and dodge, often claiming that revealing the identities of their donors would hamper a noble cause -- such as transparency.

Seems outrageous, right? Not to the many Washington insiders who regularly reap the rewards of the astroturf economy. Just look at the money flooding in to oppose Net Neutrality, an issue that has transformed the arcane debate over telecommunications policy into a full-fledged mudfest.

In the first three quarters of 2009, AT&T Inc., Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable Inc., Verizon, and their trade groups spent nearly $75 million, according to the Senate Office of Public Records. They have used this to hire more than 500 lobbyists to discredit public interest calls for an open Internet.

Over the last four-year political cycle, they maxed out their legal allowance, contributing $33 million to federal campaigns to win the hearts and minds of elected leaders. And that's just the money we know about.

Because they're bankrolling astroturf behind a fig leaf of "public relations," large corporations aren't legally required to disclose the lion’s share of their funding of these fake grassroots groups.

"The estimates range from double to two to three times the $3.2 billion that was spent [in 2008] on direct lobbying in Washington," says Craig Holman, the legislative representative for watchdog group Public Citizen. "Astroturf work is expensive."

Protecting the Status Quo

These massive undisclosed sums include costs for high-end public relations firms, legal fees, push polling, direct mail efforts, and dubious think tank research.

On Internet policy, astroturf groups have pocketed millions from industry to fulfill Job No. 1: Lock in incumbent phone and cable companies' control over high-speed Internet connections in America. At present, these companies provide 97 percent of fixed connections into American homes, a status quo they are willing to spend untold sums to maintain.

This means hiring astroturf spokespeople to oppose any Internet consumer protections or policy reforms that would open the market to more competitors and consumer choice. In the hands of a skilled astroturf spokesperson, such reforms are radical, untested, and cumbersome regulations designed to smother the cyberspace economy, which has thrived in a magical realm free of government oversight.

Never mind that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules -- from the Carterfone decision to the Part 15 unlicensed ruling and "white spaces" decision -- were responsible for everything from the introduction of the first Internet modems to the proliferation of WiFi, and for prying open spectrum for the next generation of smart phones.

This evidence doesn't stop Mike McCurry from telling the world that "the Internet has worked absent regulation," a song the White-House-press-secretary-turned-hired-gun has been singing to the tune of a quarter-million-dollar paycheck from phone and cable companies.

This is how astroturfers hijack the debate. And if they're not debunked, it's how control over Internet access -- and potentially over content -- will be handed over wholesale to the few ISPs that dominate the marketplace.

That's the destructive irony of the astroturf economy. Millions of dollars are funneled into efforts to spread populist-sounding rhetoric that actually undermines the public, and protects the swindle that has turned Washington into a big company town.

-- Karr’s article was originally published at Internet Evolution.

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