Hands Off the Internet

 

If there were an award for Astroturf lobby campaigns, Hands Off the Internet (HOTI) would win hands down.

 

With its pithy name, viral web cartoons, high profile spokesman (former White House press secretary Mike McCurry) and barrage of print and television advertising, HOTI has been effectively injecting the telephone industry's arguments on net neutrality into the public debate in recent months.

 

And they manage to do it while hiding their relationship with their corporate backers.  K Street Confidential columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum wrote in The Washington Post that "no one can determine who is supporting Hands Off the Internet by looking at its ads alone.  To find out, one must dig into its Web site."[1]

 

A little searching on the HOTI site reveals that AT&T, Cingular, BellSouth and other telephone companies are all "member organizations," but the level of financial support offered by those corporations is never disclosed.[2]  One can guess that it must run into the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars, in order to support HOTI's extensive advertising campaign.  In a single month, HOTI spent $693,658 on television advertising alone, according to independent researchers at the Campaign Media Analysis Group.[3]  That's more than $20,000 a day on TV commercials.  The group has also been running full-page ads regularly in papers like The Washington Post and Roll Call.

 

HOTI ads "are the epitome of doublespeak," according to Birnbaum.[4]  For example, one print ad attempts to frame the Hands Off the Internet message in pro-consumer terms.  "Net neutrality means consumers will be stuck paying more for their Internet access to cover the big online companies' share," the ad claims.[5]   But every major consumer group supports net neutrality, and opposes HOTI's plan to give telephone and cable companies gatekeeper status over the Internet.[6]

 

HOTI's web-based advertising campaigns look and feel like something a consumer or grassroots group might publish.  Their catchy, flash animation web videos try to persuade citizens that the government and Google are trying to control the Internet through net neutrality.  The benefits that would accrue to the telephone and cable industry if telecom legislation passes without net neutrality language are never discussed, of course.

 

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[1]  Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, "No Neutral Ground in This Internet Battle," The Washington Post, 26 July 2006.
[2]  Hands Off the Internet, "Member Organizations," at http://handsoff.org/hoti_docs/aboutus/members.shtml (last visited 4 Aug 2006).
[3]  Anne Veigle, "Groups Spent $42 Million on Net Neutrality Ads, Study Finds," Communications Daily, 20 July 2006.
[4]  Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, "No Neutral Ground in This Internet Battle," The Washington Post, 26 July 2006.
[5]  Hands Off the Internet, full page print ad in The Washington Post, 24 May 2006
[6]  SaveTheInternet.com, "One Million Americans Urge Senate to Save the Internet," at http://www.savetheinternet.com/=press11 (last visited 4 Aug 2006).