The Left's 'Media Reform' Astroturf Keeps its Eye on Telecom

In recent weeks, I have been interested in Google and in the telecommunications companies. It’s not the typical “institutional left” topic on which I usually tend to focus. At least, not on the surface. The truth is, these industries ARE about the institutional left. And if the Obama administration and the media reformists on the left get their way, the institutional left will achieve some very significant goals over the next few years in their push to see all media publicly owned. That is, unless we all start paying more attention.

Before I give you the big picture, let me start with a recent example.

Last month, Sprint, one of the big three telecommunications providers, raised its early termination fees (ETFs) on “advanced devices.” These devices are smartphones, tablets, netbooks and notebooks, as Sprint outlines in one of its support documents online. As explains, ETFs are the carrier’s way of retaining customers, and Sprint has essentially doubled its fees to $350 beginning September 9th.

An ETF is a fee intended to keep users from jumping from one carrier to another. They slowly decrease over the length of the contract, encouraging customers to wait until the contract is over before leaving for another carrier. Previously, the Sprint ETF was $200, which was lower than most competitors. AT&T and Verizon both charge $350.

With rumors swirling that the iPhone5 is coming to Sprint this fall, this would suggest that the ETF increases from AT&T and Verizon were actually justified based on actual costs, and not a reflection of market power or pricing power due to size, as many of the public interest groups would have us believe.

This is significant because when AT&T and Verizon both raised their ETF fees, the institutional left’s public interest groups had a lot to say about it.

Free Press, one of the most vocal “consumer advocate” groups, wrote several blog posts and called upon Congress to act to do away with such fees, and ran an attack campaign against Verizon. Public Knowledge, another public interest group and ally to Free Press, also attacked ETF prices.

Now that Sprint has followed suit, the public interest groups must be making some noise, right? Wrong. They’ve been noticeably silent. Haven’t said a word. But then, how can they, when Sprint seems to be funding some of their activities?

Whether or not these fees should exist is not the issue – that’s for businesses and their consumers to decide by way of the market. What IS of concern is the Astroturf nature of the organizations involved in pushing an agenda that is supposed to be on behalf of consumers.

You may recall, I pointed readers to this relationship between Sprint and the institutional left some months ago when discussing the media reform crowd’s work with competitive interests in the telecom industry. While these groups pose as consumer advocates and work with Sprint to build their “media reform” coalition, Sprint actually helps to fund some of their projects, like the website, a campaign aimed at stopping the AT&T/T-Mobile merger.

And there are groups that have a little more of a business interest, like CREDO Mobile, the progressive phone company and subsidiary of Working Assets co-founded by Tides Foundation founder Drummond Pike and fellow Democracy Alliance member Michael Kieschnick. CREDO is a mobile virtual network operator that resells Sprint, and, often together with Color of Change, uses its platform to conduct a wide variety of political activism campaigns through text messaging. Let’s not forget that CREDO, whose slogan is “fight the right wing with every call you make,” has long been exploiting the Tea Party to help grease the skids for the fight against AT&T. Conveniently, their efforts also help Sprint.

The institutional left is known for portraying businesses as “evil” and using the narrative to create wedge issues and conjure up hostility toward those who politically lean right. But the left’s ties to big business are rarely called out for scrutiny and examined. Given the financial and project links to Sprint in this particular instance, it highlights the fact that Astroturf most certainly does exist on the left.

One link that frequently ties many of these groups together is Maura Corbett. Corbett specializes in building coalitions between advocacy groups, businesses, government and the media.

The Daily Caller ran this lengthy piece in June that outlines Corbett’s connection in great detail.

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.

To put all of this into the big picture context, it is helpful to consider the Obama administration’s related policies and technology agenda, especially as we approach the 2012 elections.

  • Protect the Openness of the Internet
  • Encourage Diversity in Media Ownership
  • Bring Government into the 21st Century
  • Deploy Next-Generation Broadband
  • Reform Copyright and Patent Systems
  • Modernize Public Safety Networks

Compare this with the list of coalitions and organizations in which the institutional left, particularly media reform activists, are involved. Some are more recent, while some have been active as far back as 1999. In some cases, the groups were founded by an/or are supported by companies like Google and Sprint. Most of the activist organizations in these coalitions include Free Press, Public Knowledge, Media Access Project, the New America Foundation or some combination of these groups.

  • NoTakeover (
  • Wireless Innovation Alliance
  • Internet for Everyone
  • Open Internet Coalition
  • Connect Public Safety Now Coalition
  • No Choke Points
  • Open Internet Coalition
  • The Digital Freedom campaign
  • NetCoalition
  • SaveNetRadio coalition

Much of this also lines up nicely for the left’s New Public Media: A Plan for Action that I wrote about last year, referring to the report published by Free Press and embraced by its funding foundations, like George Soros’ Open Society Institute. All this is not to say that it’s necessarily wrong in every case for such synergies to exist. But it’s time to force the institutional left to stop pretending as though they aren’t acting as corporate front groups. Which is precisely what they typically accuse those opposite them politically of doing.

Projection is easy to recognize, once you see it.


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