Wolves in Sheep's Clothing:
Telecom Industry Front Groups and Astroturf
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As consumer demand for high-tech services grows, billions of dollars are at stake for telecommunications companies. Much of the battle is being waged in the halls of Congress right now, where our representatives are considering an overhaul of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
Cable, telephone and Internet industry giants are fiercely lobbying, using every tool at their disposal to gain a competitive advantage in telecom reform legislation. Some of those tools are easy to spot - campaign contributions, television ads that run only inside the Beltway, and meetings with influential members of Congress. Other tactics are more insidious.
One of the underhanded tactics increasingly being used by telecom companies is "Astroturf lobbying" -- creating front groups that try to mimic true grassroots, but that are all about corporate money, not citizen power. Astroturf lobbying is hardly a new approach. Senator Lloyd Bentsen is credited with coining the term in the 1980s to describe corporations' big-money efforts to put fake grassroots pressure on Congress. Astroturf campaigns generally claim to represent huge numbers of citizens, but in reality their public support is minimal or nonexistent.
Another industry approach is to fund "think tanks" and nonprofit groups with innocuous sounding names to write reports and policy papers. These groups accept subsidies or grants from corporate interests to lobby or produce research when they normally might not, but too often fail to disclose the connection between their policy positions and their bank accounts. (This is not true of all industry-friendly think tanks; some, like the Progress and Freedom Foundation, disclose supporters on their websites.)
These sorts of campaigns are dangerous for our democracy. They deliberately mislead citizens, and they deliberately mislead our lawmakers, who are already charged with the difficult task of making sense of complex telecommunications policies. Corporations that already have significant economic clout and influence are trying to co-opt the voices of everyday citizens and think tanks, and use them to their own advantage. In the end, that practice dilutes the power of true grassroots and nonprofit advocacy.
This report attempts to shine a light on some of the telecom industry's devious Astroturf campaigns, as well as their funding of think tanks for "research" that supports the industry's agenda. Because there is so little disclosure in this area, it is difficult to get all the information necessary to issue a comprehensive report. But we have uncovered nine groups that represent a range of Astroturf and front group strategies employed by the telecom giants.
These corporate-backed groups are shamelessly working to convince Congress that there is widespread public and scholarly support for their policy proposals. Unfortunately, almost all of the debate over telecom reform is happening between telephone, cable and Internet industry interests. But it's not just dollars and cents that are at stake: It's also the ability of citizens to speak, to be heard, to have access to the information they need to govern themselves.
That's why it is so critical that citizens - the real grassroots, not industry Astroturf - have their voices heard on telecom issues. When Congress wrote the 1996 Telecommunications Act, only corporate stakeholders had a seat at the table. The result was a law that gave us less competition, higher prices and more concentrated media. This time around we must make sure that our lawmakers understand that the public interest is more important than telecom companies' bottom lines.
 Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "Astroturf: Interest Group Lobbying and Corporate Strategy," Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, Winter 2004: 563. Back to report.
 Ibid, 573. Back to report.