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.
What is astroturfing?
The practice for companies or organizations to secretly fund what appear to be grassroots advocacy groups with popular support has a long history in U.S. public policy debates. But it can be difficult to determine whether specific groups are true astroturfers. One person's astroturf group may be another's legitimate advocacy group, depending on perspective.
Funding transparency isn't the only measure of an advocacy group's credibility. Some advocates argue it's just one of several factors, including the history of a group's work in policy. Most of the groups we examined have worked on tech policy issues for several years, and some of the groups with the lowest grades employ advocates who have decades of experience in tech policy, including, in some cases, time working inside government.
Still, some companies have a long track record of funding "fake activism," said Holmes Wilson, co-founder of pro-net neutrality group Fight for the Future. "I have to say I've never seen it done well," he said. "To do good activism, you have to believe in what you're doing, to your core. These PR consultants don't, and it shows."
The issues of astroturfing and funding transparency are connected to the influence that think tanks and advocacy groups wield. It's difficult to measure their specific influence, because measuring effectiveness is a bit of a dark art. Advocacy groups point to a number of factors that should be considered, including legislation and regulation passed or defeated, research cited, member actions taken and media coverage.
In some cases, several groups advocate the same position, or motivate an overlapping group of constituents, making it difficult to separate each advocacy group's influence. Many of the 14 groups in IDG News Service's transparency investigation have testified before Congress on tech-related issues, have had their work cited in FCC rulemaking proceedings and have been quoted frequently in the media.
Looking beyond funding transparency
Several advocacy groups encourage people interested in net neutrality and other issues to look beyond funding transparency to judge the value of a group's positions.
In a complicated technical issue like net neutrality, funding transparency can sidetrack a legitimate and needed debate, said Doug Brake, telecommunications policy analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank opposed to reclassification of broadband. At legitimate think tanks, "ideas come first," ahead of the views of donors, he said.
A public outcry urging the FCC to pass net neutrality rules has obscured some valid issues, including legitimate needs for network management, Brake said. "We've lost a lot of nuance in the debate," Brake said. "We need to be looking at the actual solutions to these sorts of problems that are based in engineering and economic fact."
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."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.