Verizon and AT&T’s Most Annoying Lobbyists

This guy named Andrew Keen–who’s made a career of comparing Web 2.0 to Nazism and Marxism, spamming people, trolling, and mis-stating the positions of scholars like Lawrence Lessig–was recently hired by a front group apparently to attack consumer groups like Free Press. The method of his attack is to accuse people of being paranoid, radicals, socialist, etc. He’s like a mini-Glenn-Beck. The phone and cable companies hire many like him.

One of his attacks, on TechCrunch, was subject to disgusted, acidic responses in dozens of comments by readers. Another attack, which he placed in The Hill, goes after Free Press for what is a White House and State Department policy position–that we need to ensure an open Internet at home to have moral legitimacy in arguing for an open Internet abroad. Both attacks are noise–kind of the moral equivalent to his spamming. If you read the comments (and responses) to some of the industry’s other little attack dogs, it turns out informed readers can see through the BS of the distracting trolls.

You wonder why AT&T, Verizon, and others hire such vicious little lowlifes. Really, it’s a mystery. It’s a bigger mystery because, at the same time they hire insufferables like Keen in their front groups, they hire really smart, likable people in-house. While some people have been surprised by this, I like a lot of the lobbyists and lawyers at places like Comcast, Verizon, MPAA, and AT&T. They’re nice people, they’re very charming, they’re very smart. They sometimes argue the sky is falling and the economy will collapse (!!!) if you actually try to protect speech and economic innovation with basic network neutrality rules. But they still find a way to sound almost reasonable while playing chicken little. They’re clearly paid to sound reasonable, unlike Keen and others.

Why would these huge companies–expert in lobbying–pay charming, smart people to sound reasonable as their in-house lobbyists and then pay obnoxious, abrasive charlatans in various “think tanks” and front groups?

I’ve decided there are two reasons, but I welcome other thoughts.

First, when people like Keen are spinning paranoia theories (and comparing Web 2.0 to Marxist communism), that makes the carriers’ lobbyists look far more reasonable in comparison. It’s like buying an extremist so your in-house lobbyists look less extreme. It enables these in-house lobbyists to then decry the “rhetoric,” “vituperation,” or “vitriol” of policy debates–debates they’ve actually intentionally turned vitriolic.

Second, anyone who responds to Keen becomes the “other extreme,” which helps marginalize the carriers’ enemies. For example, Keen is attacking Free Press (a group I advise). Keen’s industry backers then go to government officials and say, “Free Press is too far ‘left,’ this guy Keen a little too far ‘right,’ we’ve got your Goldilocks position, in the middle.” Somehow this works for them, because government folks love a compromise; sometimes, it seems they love being in the “middle” even more than being “correct.” Government officials are usually overworked, under severe industry pressure, and like the idea of a “moderate” choice, perhaps a “win-win,” “compromise,” “middle ground,” rather than taking the intense political heat for pursuing the correct, consumer-focused position to address our nation’s real, long-term challenges. In reality, Free Press is generally correct. Keen is generally nuts (even when he’s not talking communists and Nazis). And the carriers (on the contentious issues where they oppose, say, Free Press) are not correct, not in the middle, but just flat wrong. Creating front groups just helps create an optical illusion of “moderation”–rather than the truth, “wrongness”–for the carriers’ likable in-house lobbyists.

These front groups also put people like me in a catch-22; do I call out the Nazi-likening, Communist-seeking, elitist-extremist? Or does that permit my charming, in-house industry friends to look above the fray and above the noise… moderate if you will?

In short, these front groups exist to distract from real issues, to make industry look reasonable, and to make anyone responding to them look like the “other” extreme, rather than the sensible, consumer-focused policy advocate. It’s for this reason that I tend to turn down invitations to speak on panels sitting besides front-group hacks rather than in-house lobbyists. And I tend not to respond to these people, if I can help it.

But when these corporations–and their charming, “reasonable” lobbyists–continue to hire these professional trolls, they should to be called out for poisoning debate.

One thought on “Verizon and AT&T’s Most Annoying Lobbyists

  1. Lockamy says:

    I’m reminded of that Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode, “Attack of the 50 Ft. Eyesores”. In it, billboard advertisements come to life and completely trash Springfield. With the help of Paul Anka, Lisa figures out that, being beasts of advertising, if people ignore the billboards, then they will die. So they write a catchy jingle to distract the Springfield residents, they ignore they billboard-monsters, and the monsters promptly keel over. The point is, you’re probably right not to engage men like Keen. However, I’m guessing there are a number of people, both regulators and policymakers, who are still paying blissful, ignorant attention to these industry-hired trolls.

    These tactics, of shifting the entire realm of political possibility to a pro-industry stance, are well practiced in many other sectors. On health care, decades of conservative political dominance and industry lobbying in our discourse caused the president to immediately discard the one proposal for health care that would have been the most consumer-friendly: the single-payer system. Ideally, you win for your side by arguing a better case – you can be right and win at the same time. But when it’s impossible for you to be right, you have to win by any means necessary. So on the most contentious issues, where industry can’t reasonably articulate a winning argument, it tries to win in whatever way it can. And folks on the pro-consumer side of these debates are still trying to win by being right. This isn’t the same war that the pro-industry interests are fighting.

    Unfortunately, I can’t think of a solution to either (a) get people to ignore these rabble-rousers, or (b) tug the framing of the debate back into a more consumer-centric position, that wouldn’t result in (a) bleeding resources into procedural instead of substantive debates (where industry could outspend consumer interest groups), (b) spending precious resources by hiring extremists on pro-consumer side, or (c) giving more attention to men like Keen, thus further distracting from the real debate.

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