ProPublica reports that a mysterious new ad campaign for the internet has popped up around the nation, but nobody can quite figure out who’s sponsoring it — or why.
Recently, as ProPublica describes it, “two bearded young men in skinny jeans” put up what looked like “an art installation” in a trendy neighborhood of San Francisco: a “bright blue, oversized ‘suggestion box’ for the Internet.”
It’s not the only such box. The installations are gathering messages of support for a campaign that calls itself “Onward Internet” (or, specifically, #onwardinternet because trendy). But who or what is Onward Internet?
That’s where the mystery comes in: nobody can quite figure that out. The closest message to an actual statement or policy position that Onward Internet has on their site is, the vaguely aspirational word salad, “Unbounded by limits, unfettered by rules, it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the Internet continues to advance.”
That vaguely suggests that Onward Internet is interested in avoiding regulation, which would put them in the same bucket as ISPs like Comcast and Verizon. And while the production agency designing, installing, and manning the suggestion boxes won’t name their client, one person at the San Francisco location did blurt: “It’s something called the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.”
The NCTA — which has “Title II: Net Disaster” listed as a policy issue on its site — is the trade and lobbying group that counts Comcast and Time Warner Cable among its biggest members.
It’s no secret that cable and telecom companies, and the industry trade groups that represent them, desperately want the FCC to leave things well enough alone. They all stand against Title II reclassification, and have not been shy in saying so on the record.
But kids these days! What with their Reddit and their cat memes and their streaming music and their ultra-viral horror stories about how much Comcast sucks! Those pesky millennials just don’t seem to care enough about what their corporate overlords think. So the captains of industry are trying new tactics.
Onward Internet is not the only astroturfing effort drumming up support in the net neutrality debate. A group claiming to represent technology companies and start-ups, CALinnovates, surprised industry and consumer advocates by filing a comment against Title II reclassification with the FCC. Most smaller internet-reliant businesses have either supported Title II classification or, at the very least, asked the FCC not to allow fast lanes. CALinnovates’ director also wrote an op-ed for the Huffington Post echoing the pro-industry sentiment that regulation will wreck innovation.
Although new advocacy organizations large and small arise every day, usually groups working on a specific issue have, at the very least, a passing familiarity with each other. And on major issues like net neutrality, groups on the same side tend to work together. For example, the September 10 protest was coordinated by Engine, Free Press, Fight for the Future, and Demand Progress, with other organizations like Consumers Union, Common Cause, the ACLU, and the EFF — among many others — signing on.
But CALinnovates seemed to surprise everyone. ProPublica checked with the executive director of Engine, which is a nonpartisan advocacy trade group that represents startups and has been heavily involved in advocacy for net neutrality.
And what did she have to say? “We’d never heard of them,” she told ProPublica.
You know who has heard of CALinnovates, though? AT&T, which is a “partner” of the organization.
If cable and telecom giants and the trade groups they belong to want to try to reach younger and digitally engaged audiences, that’s fine! Good luck to them. Cat memes and strategically deployed flannel-wearing iPhone users really might be the right way to go.
But hiding their identities and whipping up support in campaigns that most passers-by can easily mistake for the opposition position? That’s the kind of shady behavior that gets them such a negative reputation in the first place.