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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.

Funding isn't "particularly relevant to the actual policy merits," Brake added. "As soon as [some people] hear that you get money from ISPs, from broadband providers, from communications providers, they just stop listening and assume that nothing you have to say has any merit."

It perhaps shouldn't be surprising that advocates of strong net neutrality regulations are more transparent, with proregulation groups tending toward the more liberal side of the U.S. political spectrum, and antiregulation groups generally more conservative or libertarian. While some liberal groups embrace transparency as a virtue, many conservative groups have emphasized free speech over transparency. That position echoes the 2010 decision of the conservative majority at the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United, when justices threw out a law that restricted independent political expenditures by nonprofit groups.

Free speech vs. transparency
Advocacy groups have a right to make their views known, regardless of who is funding them and whether they disclose their donors, said Mike Wendy, operator of MediaFreedom.org, a blog critical of net neutrality regulations. "Ideas should stand on their own," he said.

Too often, the exposure of funding "is used to shut down speech," he said. "Funding talk is almost always employed as a distraction tactic. The tactic is never used to open up discussion of the issue at hand, but rather, designed to embarrass you and put you back on your heels, having to defend the dollar support instead of the truth of the matter asserted."

Richard Esguerra, development director at pro-net neutrality group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, suggested that people judge advocacy groups on their records, in addition to funding transparency. "I think that history can play a role in separating astroturfing from honest advocacy," Esguerra said by email. "Many of the advocates I'd trust on an issue like net neutrality can point to a body of substantive work on their core concerns."

Transparency is important, but funding information "could be a distraction from the more challenging task of evaluating the value and impact of an organization's proposals," Esguerra added. "Funding information seems to be sought as a shorthand for an organization's viewpoint. But if it's used primarily as a replacement for engaging with the organization's ideas -- whether to support or to refute -- then I think that it may represent a net loss."

 

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