The ‘Astroturf’ opposition to an AT&T/T-Mobile merger

Amanda Carey | Contributor

As the Federal Communications Commission considers the planned merger between cell phone providers AT&T and T-Mobile, a supposed grassroots coalition is fighting the idea on every front. But upon closer inspection, the coalition appears to be anything but grassroots.

Almost immediately after the merger was announced, media reform groups sprang up, websites were created, and advocates came out of the woodwork. But it is all part of a playbook we’ve seen before: an alliance between professional activists and media reform organizations, funded and supported by corporate interests.

Consider the great net neutrality debate of the last decade and the plethora of organizations that acted as key players pushing for the regulations.

NetCoalition was founded in 1999 to be the “public policy voice for some of the world’s most innovative Internet companies on the key legislative and administrative proposals affecting the online world.” It has been funded by Google, IAC/Interactive, Yahoo, and CNET Networks. All of those corporations supported net neutrality.

An anti-copyright coalition called The Digital Freedom campaign was founded in 1996 by the Consumer Electronics Association. Its anchor members include net-neutrality advocates like Public Knowledge, Media Access Project and the New America Foundation.

Then there’s No Choke Points — a coalition founded on behalf of Sprint to oppose wireless telecom companies on special access issues — and Google’s Open Internet Coalition. They, too, count New America Foundation, Media Access Project and Public Knowledge as members.

Other examples of media reform coalitions throughout the years include the Wireless Innovation Alliance, Internet for Everyone, Open Internet Coalition, and Connect Public Safety Now Coalition. All were founded by Google and all, in some form or another, work to “reform” telecoms, cablecoms and other companies involved in accessing, producing, or distributing information.

But these groups have something in common that goes further than just their ideology. Not only can they all be linked back to corporate interests, but they were organized (at least in part) by Maura Corbett — a public affairs professional who recently left Qorvis Communications to start her own firm called the Glen Echo Group. When she left, she also took Google, Sprint, and the Connect Public Safety Now coalition with her as clients.

While at Qorvis, Corbett’s client list included Google and Sprint — both backers of net neutrality. Moreover, while Corbett handled Google and Sprint, she also had a hand in the formation of the coalitions and groups that advocated for policies that supported the interests of her corporate clients.

Corbett was media spokesperson for Net Coalition, No Choke Points and Digital Freedom Campaign. She also managed the Wireless Innovation Alliance, and her biography is listed on the website for Internet for Everyone.

The Open Internet Coalition was managed by Qorvis’ Katie Barr, who later left the company to join Corbett at the Glen Echo Group.

The alliance between media reform coalitions and corporate interests is part of a playbook being followed again to oppose the AT&T – T-Mobile merger. And once again, Corbett is playing a part.

The new coalition is called NoTakeover.org, and was launched soon after the announcement of the merger with the support and backing of Sprint. It also includes many of the pressure groups that took part in the net neutrality battle: Public Knowledge, Media Access Project and New America Foundation.

But while NoTakeover.org is passed off as a public interest group looking out for consumers, it recycles the same media reform activists. One of its features is called the “Angry T-Mobile Customer-of-the-Week,” where average citizens are able to blow off steam and explain why they’re against the merger.

The first angry customer was someone named Ben Byrne. But Byrne is far from the average consumer. From 2003 to 2008, he served as Creative and Technical Manager of the media reform group Free Press. Byrne did not return TheDC’s request for comment.

There is, and has been, a growing coalition advocating for media reform. But when the dots are all connected, what is left is far from a grassroots campaign. In reality, it’s a web of players advocating for corporate interests, coordinated by a public affairs specialist.

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