Seizing control of astroturfing must not be left to legislators

Did free speech dodge a bullet in January?

Did free speech dodge a bullet in January?

Yes, according to a coalition of groups from left to right, who helped kill a section of federal lobbying-disclosure legislation that opponents said would put onerous reporting requirements on people, including bloggers and others in the grassroots, who want to influence public policy and spend considerable sums to do it.

Section 220 of S.1, modifying a 1995 law, would have required that "paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying" - over a certain dollar threshold - be called what they are: outright lobbying, with the attendant disclosures required of lobbyists.

The Senate was right to remove Section 220 from the bill because it was a shade too vague for comfort. But the initial impulses that drove its creation were fair.

The issue is astroturfing, the phony grassroots lobbying that has become a modern communications tool. Astroturfing poisons public discourse and should be on no honorable PR company's list of tactics.

The rise of citizen media has given new venues to those who'd try to con the public. The last two election cycles brought us several stark examples, including the paid (but undisclosed until after the election) and ultimately effective efforts by Republican bloggers to have an impact on a Midwestern US Senate campaign in 2004.

Bloggers' role in killing Section 220 was notable this time around. Interestingly, the rhetoric some of them launched against the legislation bore little relationship to reality. They were right to oppose the bill, but did so with a vitriol that didn't begin to match its contents.

I don't want to see legislation that endangers the First Amendment. But I'm quite certain that we need to expose the shady behavior that makes people feel the need for such things. On public topic after topic, we're being bombarded with messages whose financial origins are disguised.

The debate over Internet "network neutrality" has been a classic example. An Op-Ed in my local paper opposing legislation to ensure consistent treatment of Internet customers came from the head of a group that had received major funding from - you guessed it - a phone company with a major stake in the outcome of the debate. There was no disclosure of any of this, needless to say, and the paper hadn't invested even the 10 minutes it took me to discover the financial ties.

I call this kind of thing opinion laundering. It's equally repellent as astroturfing, and I'm guessing much more common.

For all that, I still worry about overly intrusive laws requiring disclosure or forcing small fry to register as lobbyists. The best answer would be voluntary disclosure - fat chance - with shame-inducing sunlight shining on the offenders.

The latter will take more resources than anyone has come up with so far. But in an era when news organizations are busy killing their journalism, we're going to need others - such as foundations - to step up.

Don't look to the Gates Foundation, though. Microsoft has been a prominent astroturfing offender.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. He is also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.org).

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