In what has become a sound board for Free Press, Huffington Post published an attack piece this past weekend by Timothy Karr. Karr is the front man for SaveTheInternet.com, a site run by Free Press. The site has been a continuous emotional response to the issue of Net Neutrality for the last several years, a complete and full introspective of grand potential disaster scenarios for the future of the Internet, and short on data. Karr is to Net Neutrality what Al Gore is to man-made global warming. Essentially, without the strong hand of the all knowing government, the Internet as we know it is doomed.
Karr’s most recent article attacking telecommunications consultant Larry Downes is what I would term “astroturf research”. Last week, CNET published an article by Downes that considers the possibility that the White House is stepping back from strict and over reaching net neutrality regulation. This is Downes’ opinion, and one that he brings evidence to the table for. We know this is his opinion because in the second paragraph of the article he states, “That’s my reading, of a number of recent developments, underscored by comments made by government speakers on a panel on the first day of a Tech Policy Summit at CES in Las Vegas.”
Downes is a journalist. And he’s doing what journalists do, observe and report, nothing more. In recent months several think tanks have advised that last Fall’s FCC Net Neutrality Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) could potentially thwart the expansion of broadband across the nation to rural areas. Specifically what are referred to as “underserved and unserved” areas of the country. The basic notion is that by restricting the methods in which network engineers can manage their networks by way of Net Neutrality regulation, the costs of running small networks in these underserved and unserved areas will increase to the point of making them financially unsustainable. Downes simple observation is that he believes the Obama Administrations priority is broadband expansion rather than Net Neutrality.
This suggestion does not mean that the FCC will relinquish its move toward Net Neutrality regulation. It’s simply suggesting that Downes believes current movements and commentary indicates that the White House may be pushing it to the back burner and asking our bureaucrats to focus on broadband expansion.
Instead of acknowledging this possibility or even providing evidence to the contrary, Karr has the audacity to attack Downes credibility. He quotes Nancy Scola of The American Prospect repeating a comment that Downes is consulting for AT&T, thus implying that he obviously can’t be unbiased in any of his reporting. On one hand there is no evidence that Downes has been contacted to see if this accusation is even true. On the other hand, what would it matter if it is true? SaveTheInternet.com and Free Press are notorious for calling out other individuals and organizations for working with or accepting donations from others that share their view on policy. But how does the not-for-profit Free Press bring in its operating budget?
“Right. Free Press takes no money from any industry groups or any members of the technology industry. We’re supposed to believe that thousands of individuals bust open their piggy banks and send the coins to Free Press’s offices … or something. Maybe a money tree Free Press grows in the garden between its unicorn pen and the jungle gym for leprechauns finance its $4 million annual budget.
“It’s hard to say for sure because when you look at the group’s 990 forms to the IRS, the names of the donors are redacted. On the top of every page of contributors on Free Press’ 2007 forms is a hand-written note: ‘Not open to public inspection. –James G. Lakely, The Heartland Institute'”
Downes currently serves as a fellow for the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society. However, Karr chooses to try and dissect this as well commenting that, “Too many ‘scholars’ live this sort of double life – trading on academic credentials to lay a gloss of credibility over their telco-friendly arguments. It’s up to news orgs (ahem… CNET) to disclose both sides of their personalities.” It is my understanding that this comment was made from the Mount Olympus of double standards and arrogance. SaveTheInternet.com and Free Press have made no bones siding with the likes of scholars like Tim Wu, who is Chair of Free Press, and Larry Lessig, both staunch Net Neutrality regulation proponents. But they have never questioned these scholars about potential ulterior motives. Furthermore, Larry Lessig himself founded the Center for Internet and Society, and would have absolutely had a say in bringing Downes on as a fellow for the project. Are we really to believe that Lessig would have brought Downes in on a project as high profile as this at the third-ranked Stanford Law School if he was suspect of devious motives?
The reality of the matter is this: Free Press and its umbrella groups have online media spin down to a science, and I will be the first to admit that they are consummate professionals to a degree that only Bobby Jones could appreciate.
Free Press criticizes those that speak out against their goals for being puppets of the industry that shares that agenda. They however will not criticize those that share their opinion that receive support from the industry that promotes the Free Press agenda. Are we really to believe that industry giants like Amazon, YouTube, Google, etc., have hired no lobbyist or government relations organizations to represent them in the Net Neutrality debate? Are we really to believe these corporate giants will not benefit financially from regulation and that they are not pouring any money into the system to protect their own interests? Free Press would have us think that it is only possible to be a shill for an industry if you are opposing their view point when the fact of the matter is that Free Press is a shill themselves.
Nicholas R. Brown is a technology policy analyst, and has spent time with The Heritage Foundation, Florida TaxWatch, Focus on the Family Australia in Melbourne, and the Georgia Christian Alliance.