Scripted opposition to wireless merger raises credibility questions

Amanda Carey Contributor
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While attorneys at the Department of Justice spent countless hours investigating the legality of a proposed merger between wireless carriers AT&T and T-Mobile, publicly filed comments opposing the transaction were piling up at the Federal Communications Commission. 

But word-for-word, an overwhelming number of those comments are either completely or partially identical.

The thousands of comments, filed through the FCC’s website, have not gone unnoticed. Sprint Nextel Inc., which ardently opposes the merger, points to the comments as proof average Americans do not want to see AT&T and T-Mobile become one entity.

Many of the most recent comments contain the language, “Don’t let AT&T put our mobile future at risk. Please stand with me and reject such reckless consolidation of the mobile industry.”

Coincidentally, Free Press — a media reform advocacy group — is promoting a feature on its “Take Action” Web page that allows visitors to submit a scripted comment to the FCC.

“AT&T’s takeover of T-Mobile would stifle choice and innovation in the market, harm consumers, and lead to higher prices and fewer jobs nationwide,” reads the comment. “Don’t let AT&T put our mobile future at risk. Please stand with me and reject such reckless consolidation of the mobile industry.”

Last month the Atlanta Journal-Constitution pointed out that more than half of the filed comments opposing the merger from Atlanta residents “were identical, taken from a statement posted on a website by the Free Press.” (As Justice Dept. reviews legality of merger, it’s AT&T versus Spring)

And a search of the FCC website finds that the phrase “Please stand with me and reject” turns up more than 19,000 times.

The Take Action site was launched less than a week before the FCC’s May 31 deadline for filing comments. At the time, it was reported that Free Press sent a mass email to 275,000 subscribers, including a link to the site. From there, visitors could weigh in just by clicking “send.”

The jump from comments filed before the site launched, to comments filed after the site’s inception is staggering, going  in just a few days from less than 100 to 10,000.

Some now point to these “robo-comments” as proof of a campaign that makes a lot of noise but is organized by only two or three groups. And for some, the robo-copy raises questions about the credibility of the opposition to what would be a gigantic corporate merger.

Another organization, called CREDO Action — an advocacy arm of telecom company CREDO Mobile — circulated a petition in May asking its members to oppose the merger. CREDO then filed the petitions with the FCC, in increments of between 3,963 to 4,574 names each time. In all, CREDO submitted roughly 35,000 signatures.

CREDO resells Sprint wireless phone service. And in recent years, it has been a significant donor to Free Press.

Another organization engaging in eyebrow-raising tactics is Consumer Union, the nonprofit organization that publish Consumer Reports magazine. It, too, maintains an online form asking visitors to submit comments to the FCC opposing the AT&T–T-Mobile merger.

The website also provides a one-click way for Web surfers to submit anti-merger comments to the FCC, though it does not provide a pre-written letter. One of the organizations behind the site is the media-reform organization Public Knowledge. And a small-print disclosure at the bottom of the site’s home page says it was produced with the support of Sprint.

The “NoTakeover” web domain is registered to the public relations giant APCO Worldwide. In May the PR industry newspaper O’Dwyer’s reported in a blog entry that APCO was one facet of “the Sprint PR team” tasked with derailing the merger of its competitors. O’Dwyer’s also reported that Sprint engaged Weber Merritt, a “grassroots specialist” PR firm, to join APCO and Abernathy MacGregor Group — yet another PR firm — in the effort.

Still, Public Knowledge communication director Art Brodsky told The Daily Caller that everyone who visited the NoTakeover site did so organically — that is, without prompting — because they cared about the consequences of a wireless merger between AT&T and T-Mobile.

“Of course they were organic,” said Brodsky. “Everyone who wrote in did so because he or she believes in the issue.”

“No one who sent in a comment got paid by anybody,” he added.

When contacted by TheDC, a spokesperson for Sprint accused AT&T of trying to “dismiss and minimize the overwhelming level of opposition to their proposed bid” to merge with T-Mobile.

“The overwhelming majority of individuals are opposed to AT&T’s bid because it will hurt consumers, harm competition and innovation, and threaten our economic future,” said the spokesperson. “The FCC will have a very difficult time disregarding the public sentiment as they’re evaluating the public interest.”

An AT&T spokesperson fired back, saying, “The FCC’s review is a fact-based process, and it sees through the rhetoric that isn’t supported by facts.”

Representatives from Free Press have not returned email requests for comment.