Have you ever read the comment section of a blog post or news article and thought: Damn, these trolls must be paid by someone? When it comes to enemies of a free and open internet, at least, they really are.
On the pages of VICE and an investigative website I help manage called Republic Report, I've covered the net neutrality debate—whether Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should be able to create internet fast and slow lanes, or if, instead, all content should be treated equally. A writer and attorney named Kristal High has been attacking me in the comment section throughout the year.
For a story about how civil rights groups with funding from Comcast and other telecom companies wrote a letter to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) supporting the agency's proposal to gut net neutrality, High showed up in the comment section to call me "paternalistic." After I published a story last week about how a Comcast-affiliated African American news outlet decided to delete a story I wrote about net neutrality upon being contacted by an advocacy group tied to the telecom industry, High appeared in the comment section once again to troll me. She claimed that I am wrong to be critical of the FCC's plan and that I have been wasting my time by focusing on the "lobbying dollars" spent in the debate.
Well, speaking of lobbying dollars, High just admitted on-air that she is being paid by the DCI Group, a lobbying firm founded by Republican operatives to defend the tobacco industry. DCI Group now represents many current net neutrality opponents, including Verizon and Broadband for America, a front for major cable companies we previously investigated at VICE.
High's disclosure went down in a fairly unusual way.
On his program yesterday, radio host David Pakman discussed how he has received pitches from the DCI Group to have commenters on the show to discuss telecom policy—and noticed that these commenters have largely regurgitated industry talking points against a free and open internet. Pakman said he became suspicious of the DCI Group and decided to look them up. After receiving the next pitch from the firm, this time to have Kristal High on to discuss the issue, he invited her to the program and asked point blank if she was being paid by DCI.
"Are individuals like you and Everett Ehrlich, are you paid by DCI?" asked Pakman.
"I think you have to really consider what it is you're suggesting, you're asking there" High responded. "If people are working on different issues, there could be, say, a consulting arrangement that's separate and apart from whatever it is people are advocating for."
"So in other words," Pakman said, "DCI may be paying you as a consultant, but they're not paying you for the media appearances or being a spokesperson for the point of view that their clients espouse."
"Right," said High.
The entire interview, which is posted on YouTube, is worth checking out.
High is the editor and co-founder of a website called Politic365, which calls itself the "the premier digital destination for politics and policy related to communities of color." High's colleagues at the website, including writers Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt and Justin Vélez-Hagan, have also shown up in the comment section of my pieces to defend the FCC's plan to end net neutrality. But a closer look at the group reveals deep ties to the telecom industry, well beyond the revelation that its editor is paid by lobbyists.
Politic365 was "incubated" by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, a group profiled last year by the Center for Public Integrity. They found that the outfit takes huge checks from telecom giants to mobilize African American and Latino support for industry priorities, like opposing net neutrality or supporting corporate media mergers.
A look at the archives of Politic365 reveals a laundry list of articles that could be charitably described as friendly to industry objectives. This op-ed on the Politic365 website attacks municipal broadband—which cities have used to provide fiber optic broadband for a fraction of the cost of what traditional cable companies offer—as a "false promise." Another news article on the site muses that the proposed Comcast merger with Time Warner Cable could "benefit minorities." When Comcast merged with NBC, Politic365 also celebrated that conglomeration as somehow beneficial to communities of color.
Politic365's content is distributed widely, and High has published a slew of anti-net neutrality op-eds at the Huffington Post. High has not disclosed her financial relationship with the DCI Group in either of her professional biographies. But there have been hints about the funding in the past.
"We found that African Americans are overwhelmingly satisfied with their wireless phone service," High says in a video distributed by MyWireless.org, a group controlled by CTIA The Wireless Association, a trade association for companies such as Verizon and AT&T. The latest tax return for the group shows a contribution of $10,000 to Politic365.
As the debate over net neutrality rages on, we've seen a number of unseemly tactics from the telecom lobby, like duping random environmental groups and librarians into joining pro-industry coalitions. During a discussion last week on Bloomberg TV, Columbia University senior fellow Alec Ross wondered out loud if "phone companies and the cable companies flat out own Congress?" Recent events suggest they do. But the policymaking process is much bigger than simply having a few hundred congressmen in your pocket. You also need an army of comment trolls.
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