Astroturfing in the net neutrality debate

The guys from Transparify have called my attention to an interesting article by Grant Gross published at Gross has used a Transparify DIY approach to analyze the financial transparency of different groups (non-profits, Think Tanks, advocacy associations) engaged in the net neutrality debate. There is a lot of diversity: from organizations who disclose their donors and the amounts donated (rated “A”) to others who provide no information whatsoever about their contributors. His summary: most of these groups get poor grades for financial transparency. 

This rating gives me a precious opportunity to show why financial transparency, though important, is never enough in itself. Blind ratings can endorse poor, biased work of policy research institutions or fail to recognize good organizations; the accountability process is much broader and it needs good reporting eyes that look into goals, strategies and research output.

Let’s take the Center for Democracy and Technology, a DC-based group that has received an A in this informal rating. Among others, they are funded by Google, Facebook and Verizon. But they are transparent, so they have nothing to hide, right? At least, they can’t be blamed of astroturfing. Says Gross: 

Astroturfing is commonly defined as a lack of funding transparency, paired with the appearance of grassroots support

Center for Democracy and Technology

With good reasons, though, CDT might be blamed of half of it: the appearance of grassroot support. According to my own analysis of one of its policy papers from last year, The Importance of Internet Neutrality to Protecting Human Rights Online,  CDT has masked its advocacy in favor of net neutrality as an issue of civil rights and freedom of expression in order to garnish a support from the general public they wouldn’t be able to generate if they spoke openly in name of their donors.

If you want to know the details of my analysis, you can read the text that follows. You will find a very qualitative discussion on the meaning of the concepts and definitions used in CDT’s paper. No need to dive into data.

Policy paper analysis. Masking motivations in the net neutrality debate.

How does CDT represent Internet neutrality? The working definition appears somewhat late in the text, at the end of page 3:

the principle that providers of internet access should not discriminate in their carriage of Internet traffic on the basis of its source, destination, content, or associated application.

In other words, networks have traditionally been blind to the use given to the ones and zeros that run through their veins, and this has been possible because they belong in a different layer than user-related functions, leaving all the work to transform information in usable content to user-held terminals (layering and end-to-end architecture principles).

According to this model, all internet nodes are structurally equivalent. Due to its architectural design, this amorphous structure has no pillars, centers, meeting halls or walls. All nodes can connect with all and become a temporary nucleus that will eventually be reabsorbed into the horizontality of the architecture. For CDT, this result of the two architecture principles has an important consequence for users: the internet is free of constraints, there are no limitations nor borders to the maximum distance information can cover; and there are no limits to what citizens can make out of that information. These are the human principles of borderlessness and free choice.

In comparison to the threefold model of communication, internet neutrality thus simplifies at the microscopic level to the transmission between symmetrical endpoints:

The threefold model:                                   Sender>Message>Receiver

The neutral network transmission:           Node<>Transmission<>Node

Looking more closely (and noting the distinction between free expression and free choice), each iteration has two ways: a user exerts free choice by requesting information, and then receives the information requested, fulfilling the free expression of others.

NNT W1:             User > Request (Free choice) > Content

NNT W2:             User < Transmission (Free Expression) < Content

Of course, content can have all kinds of different forms: (software, audio, video, apps, written text, website contents, VoIP protocols, etc.) with different sizes and associated difficulties, but the enforcement of the end-to-end principle should guarantee access providers only have to worry about the capacity of their networks.

Problems with CDT’s account of internet neutrality

I have found CDT’s account to suffer from three major shortcomings.

1. Human Rights or Fair Market?

In my opinion, a very weak point in CDT’s position is the persistent focus on Human Rights even though the problem at hand matters most because of its economic implications. In words of Tim Wu, the inventor of the “net neutrality” term:

The promotion of network neutrality is no different than the challenge of promoting fair evolutionary competition in any privately owned environment, whether a telephone network, operating system, or even a retail store. Government regulation in such contexts invariably tries to help ensure that the short-term interests of the owner do not prevent the best products or applications becoming available to end-users. The same interest animates the promotion of network neutrality: preserving a Darwinian competition among every conceivable use of the Internet so that the only the best survive.

Tim Wu, Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination, Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law, Vol. 2, p. 141, 2003.

There. The network neutrality issue is not (eminently) about human rights, it’s not (eminently) about freedom of expression and freedom of choice, it’s not (eminently) about promoting the civil liberties. CDT’s paper gives the impression that we need FCC’s no-blocking rules to guarantee access to the websites of activist organizations, bloggers from Iran or tweets from Venezuela and Ukraine. Instead, the current debate is about preserving a fair market where innovations are possible and the best new service can replace present technological giants. Where a small company won’t lose against the big ones because it can’t afford a peer agreement with a major ISP.

This shortcoming comes first on my list because it’s a hard blow against the rhetoric foundations of CDT’s position. Even though the paper opens with a strong humanist appeal to the importance of education and culture, ultimately the better defended Human Right is not the freedom of expression, but rather its pseudo-synonym, the freedom of choice, which implies viewing internet users as users and customers, as opposed to citizens and creators.

2. The reality of networks

With a graphic quote from an article appeared in Wired last June, I would like to challenge the notion that the mature internet as we know it has a neutral architecture.

Now, even if this image can be considered a distorted and overly simplified model of how the internet functions, it does call into play the existence of backbone services, which are missing in CDT’s account, and places Google’s search engine at the user’s end of the process. Given that major content players are closer to the backbone than any other node in the network and have a differential importance on how users access what they want, the symmetrical model above is probably misleading.

Opposed to this likelier realization, CDT’s discourse seems on the verge of falling into essentialism. It does acknowledge that certain characteristics of the internet “are not immutable”, but only after having secured they are what “have defined the internet since its inception”. In the next paragraph I will discuss some of the reasons why I don’t think the internet has always been by definition user-controlled and decentralized, which are for CDT two of “the defining attributes of the internet”

What is really an access provider?

Google is in the business of accessing the internet. So is Facebook. Both are main donors of CDT. Arguably all these companies discriminate internet traffic based on its content, source, destination, or a combination of the above. Google’s algorithm ranks pages, creates an index, and prioritizes their meaningfulness to the user. Facebook feeds have a great power to shape user behavior, as a recent and polemical study linking AB tests to emotions has shown. Naver requires creating affiliated content in one of their café’s in order to appear in their homepage. They all enjoy quasi-monopolistic positions in different markets and clash directly with Wu’s demand for more competition.

Arguably, these and other companies have long ago disrupted the internet as a place where decentralized, user-controlled communication can happen. But (together with CDT) they are amongst the important names advocating for net neutrality.

If what we really want is a neutral network, we probably should take some steps back and look at what normal user behavior is really like. The request-and-transmission model above describes an unrealistic relationship of users with the content of the internet where the user can freely decide what he desires and magically retrieve it. Instead, few actors play a mediating role that has curved the way the internet works.

Google access:                 User > searches terms > chooses from indexed information

Facebook access:             User < enters the feed < clicks on assorted contents

If Facebook decided to erase the updates of feminist pages from the feeds of all male users (and there are several reasons why they could be interested in this move), or if Google decided to give priority to commercial websites, they could change radically the identity and ideology of users without their consent, and enter in a major conflict with their freedom of choice. To an important extent, this is already happening. So much so that, according to some, social media could be one of the places where freedom of expression could be losing its democratic value ­–one of the strong claims of Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble.

What next?

Currently, based on the Communications Act of 1934,

  • ISPs are considered providers of information services and not providers of telecommunications services.
  • Telecommunication service providers are common carriers, information services providers are not.
  • Only common carriers, due to their close link to the public interest, can be subject to restrictions such as the no-discrimination and the no-blocking rule.

An obvious measure is amending the Communications Act of 1934. It’s common sense that ISPs are providing telecommunications services that consist in the transmission of information, so that distinction needs to be eroded. Also, in the twenty-first century more and more basic everyday actions, like looking for a job, purchasing a health insurance or enrolling in college require a connection to the internet, so the declaration of internet access as an utility (and of ISPs as common carriers) can easily be advocated with large support from vast constituencies.

In words of Tim Wu,

What we still need […] is a better way of regulating internet service providers. One way of doing this is through common carrier law —as defined in the Title II section of the 1934 Communications Act. Basically, this would treat ISPs as utilities. This would allow the government to prevent them from blocking or degrading traffic, but it would also force the ISPs to offer their internet lines to other companies. That creates competition, which is really the best way of ensuring that ISPs behave. As it stands, there’s very little competition.

The next step is actually tougher, because it is about regulating the companies that are in the business of accessing content. Can we imagine a federal agency or an international organization dedicated to the creation and update of indexes that users could employ to navigate the internet? Google is currently fulfilling a job that in the 1920’s would have been the job of the Ministry of Information, in what Siva Vaidhyanathan (The Googlization of everything… and why we should worry, p. 41) has called a public failure:

Public failure […] occurs when instruments of the state cannot satisfy public needs and deliver services effectively

Google does their job very well, but it wouldn’t be absurd to subject it to reasonable public controls.

3 thoughts on “Astroturfing in the net neutrality debate

  1. Thank you for this interesting post! Transparify cannot comment on net neutrality issues (we lack expertise in this), but regarding your observation that “financial transparency, though important, is never enough in itself”, we fully agree. Below more on our position – which may evolve as we exchange views with other stakeholders…

    From Transparify’s FAQ:

    Why do you only assess financial transparency?
    We are aware that financial transparency is only one aspect of overall transparency. At the same time, we think that assessing whether the public can “follow the money” provides the best entry point for gradually improving the wider accountability of the sector.

    So yes, we do agree that other factors also matter. As we noted in our 2014 report:

    “Think tanks can play a positive role producing independent, in-depth policy research to inform
    politicians, media and the public. However, our data shows that some major think tanks still are not
    as financially transparent as they could be. A lack of transparency can raise questions about hidden
    agendas and thus undermine the effectiveness of the think tank sector as a whole.
    Transparify’s aim is to provide think tanks committed to intellectual independence and excellence in research with a tool for signalling to policy makers, the media and the public that they deserve their trust and respect. A policy research institution publicly recognized for its financial transparency can hardly be accused of harbouring ‘hidden’ agendas.
    Every think tank needs money to operate, and there is nothing wrong with accepting funding from a
    variety of public, non-profit and private sources. The problem is not funding – the problem is hidden
    funding, no matter from which source.
    We encourage think tanks to disclose who funds them,
    the funding amounts, and the research the funding
    supports. Equally, we urge donors to encourage the
    think tanks they support to be fully transparent about
    their finances, and to eventually make financial
    transparency a precondition for providing future funding.
    And we respectfully suggest that journalists in future add
    the phrase ‘does not disclose its funders’ when reporting
    on policy prescriptions issued by opaque organizations.
    Think tanks have become key players in democratic politics. As such, they have a responsibility to be
    transparent about their operations. We are aware that contexts may differ, and that financial
    transparency is only one aspect of overall transparency. At the same time, we think that assessing
    whether the public can follow the money provides the best entry point for gradually improving the
    wider accountability of the sector.
    Transparify has rated and reached out to 169 think tanks worldwide, and the great news is that
    many major institutions agree that transparency is a good idea. Our research revealed that 21
    prominent think tanks are already excelling in transparency and setting standards for the field by
    disclosing their donors and projects funded. An additional 14 think tanks are quite close to meeting
    this high bar. Moreover, there is momentum towards greater transparency. The number of
    transparent think tanks increased by 40% in early 2014, and we expect it to double by the time of
    our next ratings at the end of the year.
    Think tanks can be a great asset for a society. Their contribution is even more valuable if they are
    also role models of transparency.”

    Anyone who has thoughts/criticisms/comments on our approach is highly welcome to guest blog (800 words max) on our website. It’s an important debate and we’d love to hear more voices!

  2. This is an interesting critique of my funding transparency grades and accompanying stories.
    I’d push back on a couple of comments. First, I don’t think I’d call these “blind ratings.” The ratings look at funding transparency, not at the quality of the work of the think tanks and advocacy groups overall.

    In an accompanying story to the ratings (, I note: “Funding transparency isn’t the only measure of an advocacy group’s credibility. Some advocates argue it’s just one of several factors, including the history of a group’s work in policy. Most of the groups we examined have worked on tech policy issues for several years, and some of the groups with the lowest grades employ advocates who have decades of experience in tech policy, including, in some cases, time working inside government.”

    I give critics of funding transparency a good amount of ink in that story.

    Funding transparency is one measure of an advocacy group or think tank’s credibility. It’s not the only measure. Many of the other measures, however, as you say, the “goals, strategies and research output,” as you say, can be more difficult to measure in any objective way. My experience from more than 12 years of reporting on D.C. tech policy is that policy research basically parrots the position of the group paying for it.

    I can’t remember the last time I saw a policy research paper paid for by a group with a position already articulated that disagreed in any major way with that position. Never mind the problems with predicting economic outcomes related to regulations that aren’t even finalized yet, or predicting the economic impact of a regulation coming many months down the road, when worldwide economic conditions may have changed significantly.

    Finally, while CDT has argued for net neutrality rules as a way to protect free expression, I don’t think that’s their only argument for the rules. As a long-time advocate of free expression, they may be most interested in that issue, but they’ve also argued for the rules in multiple papers/filings as a way to preserve online innovation.

    — Grant Gross
    D.C. reporter
    IDG News Service

    • Hello,

      Thank you all for taking the time to reply. I’d like to add some comments myself.

      First, I wouldn’t say my contribution in this blog was a critique as much as a supplement, and in fact I am 100% in favor of financial transparency, which is the topic of my blog. To me, it’s an important condition of organizational accountability. That said, I’d like to apologize for the use of expressions that catch the eye and may not be as accurate as desirable. “Blind ratings” is one of them. I should have written “these ratings are blind to the content of the activities and research output developed by the organizations; an important factor as it is in the process of accountability, financial transparency tells little about the quality of work done. But that is not to say that it doesn’t matter”. The point here was to make a reminder of the need for more work to correctly evaluate the contributions of policy research organizations and their relations to specific interests. In that regard, the text I rescued from my hard drive is an example of why conceptual analysis is always an important part of policy discourse.

      The movement for more transparency is gaining momentum as more people get involved and new actors try to push it beyond the boundaries of the public sector where it has been confined until now. Precisely for that reason, I think we run the risk of extending the simplified notion that transparent institutions are per se better than opaque institutions. It’s vital to give examples that disrupt this simplistic equation, and I felt in the duty to do so precisely because I had the certainty that the Center for Global Development was making a sophistic use of their appeal to civil rights in this specific policy paper.

      There are other takeaways from this confrontation. One of them reconnects to the New York Times article on Norwegian influence in DC, and it goes that transparent institutions are more vulnerable, which means that they can be targeted more often by reporters, the general public or other organizations. The risk here is to refrain from balancing the focus to other institutions that give no information whatsoever about their funding sources. We should be aware that this may happen and that a similar imbalance is undesirable.

      Last of all, over the last months I have been wondering how can we find a middle point between transparency ratings, that have the wonderful power to portray an array of institutions in a single picture, and investigative work/conceptual analysis that takes ages to research and write and is difficult to communicate to the general public. This is my conundrum, so if I can find a methodological framework that can be applied in a procedural manner and is not blind I will let you all know.

      Thanks again for commenting!

      Jaime Gonzalez Capitel

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