Group that decries hidden interests keeps its true interests well hidden.
Here in Washington, we’re used to a certain amount of hypocrisy. It’s part of the atmosphere, like exhaust fumes from the high school tour buses.
But once in a while even we get taken aback. No, not about the debt-limit debate, although that also strains our tolerance. We are referring to an unusual spate of filings in one of the FCC’s rulemaking dockets.
The rulemaking itself is an inside-the-Beltway matter. The FCC allows interested parties to file views on its proceedings even after the published comment schedule has expired. These late submissions are called “ex parte” filings, from the Latin for “one-sided,” which they generally are. In the past, they offered a way to put useful technical and policy information before the FCC staff. With the advent of electronic filing, the ex parte process has also become a way for special interest groups speaking through complaisant individuals to flood the FCC with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of nearly identical statements.
The rulemaking in question asks for comment on whether groups filing ex parte statements should have to identify who they really are. After all, an organization called “Citizens for Better Phone Service” may in fact be a telephone company seeking relief from regulation. “Coalition for a Free Internet” may be a front for a cable company opposed to network neutrality rules. And so on. Such groups are often called “AstroTurf®” entities: an artificial construct masquerading as a grass-roots organization. (AstroTurf ® is a registered trademark, even if the registration doesn't cover this particular use of the term.)
In addition to the usual suspects – lobbying groups that make frequent ex parte filings with the FCC – this rulemaking has attracted well over 200 identical submissions signed by individuals. They all read as follows:
Dear FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski,
Big corporations are now in the business of paying off non-profits and front groups to get them to mouth industry propaganda in letters to the FCC.
In a practice known as “astroturfing” groups claiming to represent the public receive considerable sums of money from corporations that have a stake in the outcome of FCC rule makings. In return, they send comments and letters to the FCC that repeat their benefactors’ talking points, sometimes word-for-word.
As a result, the public’s voice often gets drowned out by industry echo chambers. I strongly believe that ordinary citizens have the right to know which groups are taking money, and who's really behind their astroturfing.
I urge the FCC to pass rules that shed light on this practice, by requiring organizations to disclose conflicts of interest when submitting comments and other filings to the Commission.
A reasonable view, you might say. Certainly well within the mainstream of the proceeding.
But think about it. Unless you believe in massive coincidence, some organization must have coordinated these 200+ identical filings. The filings don’t say what organization that is. The same people who “repeat their benefactors’ talking points,” in urging the FCC to “pass rules that . . . requir[e] organizations to disclose conflicts of interest” decline to say what organization they represent.
Even by Washington standards, this is a staggering display of hypocrisy. Either that, or someone with an ironic sense of humor has far too much free time. But intentional humor is in desperately short supply in Washington, these days. We’d like to be wrong – but if hypocrisy and humor are the only choices, we’ll bet on hypocrisy every time.