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Secretive funding fuels ongoing net neutrality astroturfing controversy

Grant Gross | Oct. 27, 2014
With a low level of transparency about donors, some advocacy groups open themselves up to accusations.

The contentious debate about net neutrality in the U.S. has sparked controversy over a lack of funding transparency for advocacy groups and think tanks, which critics say subverts the political process.

News stories from a handful of publications in recent months have accused some think tanks and advocacy groups of "astroturfing" -- quietly shilling for large broadband carriers. In a handful of cases, those criticisms appear to have some merit, although the term is so overused by people looking to discredit political opponents that it has nearly lost its original meaning.

Critics of astroturfing -- defined as hiding the sponsors of a message or group as a way to make it appear to have grassroots support -- say it twists political debate by making some positions appear to be more popular with the public than they really may be.

Groups that hide their funding open themselves up to accusations of astroturfing and questions about credibility. An IDG News Service investigation has found a mixed record of funding transparency at prominent think tanks and advocacy groups involved in the net neutrality debate. [A grading system that ranks openness of funding is reported in the story "The ratings: Most net neutrality groups get poor grades for funding transparency."]

Our investigation found that major groups opposing U.S. Federal Communications Commission reclassification and regulation of broadband as a public utility tend to be less transparent about their funding than the other side. Still, some big-name advocates of strong net neutrality rules also have limited transparency mechanisms in place.

Strong regulations are needed to prevent large players from harming competition by throttling bandwidth of smaller service providers and competitors, proponents of net neutrality rules say. Opponents of strong regulation say it would dampen investment and business' ability to compete as they see fit.

It's important for groups trying to influence U.S. policy to be up front about who they are speaking for, said Jennifer Lappin, U.S. outreach and advocacy director for Transparify, a transparency advocacy group funded by Open Society Foundations, a foundation started by liberal philanthropist George Soros.

Think tanks and advocacy groups "play a very prominent role in both policy formation and public policy debates," she said by email. "Think tanks need funding to operate and undertake research, and there is nothing wrong with accepting money from a variety of private and/or public sources to do so. However, hidden funding can create the appearance -- or the actuality of -- hidden agendas."

The top four funding transparency scores in IDG News Service's rating of 14 groups went to groups advocating for strong net neutrality rules, while a handful of pro-neutrality groups received mid-level grades or lower. Meanwhile, no major group opposing strong net neutrality regulations earned better than a mid-level grade.


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