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May 3, 2005

Sock Puppets Defend Puppet Show

200Px-Carlb-Sockpuppet-01Okay, this is a new one on me: the curtain is thrown back but the socks keep on talking, claiming there's no hand inside them: This is pretty remarkable, but the New Millennium Research Council and Issue Dynamics are defending their paid work on behalf of their incumbent telecom and cable customers directly. No pretense, no hiding. They want their cake and eat it, too.

Can it be said any clearer in this News.com article than a policy advocate at Consumer's Union? "Sometimes we agree with the phone companies, and sometimes we don't. But we never accept any money from an interested party."

NMRC pretends to be independent. I have asked the many reporters who have interviewed them, and unless they ask, the funding sources aren't revealed, though NMRC does disclose its relationship with Issue Dynamics on its Web site and vice versa. Reporters are being handed experts to talk to that don't provide reasonable disclosure about their financial ties to the organizations they are commenting on.

The president of Issue Dynamics, Sam Simon, says, "We try to be reasonably open about the fact that some research funding is from business interest." It's true, they are from their end. But NMRC is much less so, and it's not in Issue Dynamics's clients' interests for NMRC to be seen as an arm of the media relations firm. (Update: Simon has jumped into the fray in the comments below; I've posted his remarks unedited and replied.)

His site states succinctly on its home page that what NMRC attempts to deny is in fact the mission of Issue Dynamics: "IDI provides a complete suite of campaign management services that help our clients win their legislative and regulatory campaigns using grassroots, grasstops, third-party stakeholder support and integrated online campaigns."

Allen Hepner is noted here as the executive director of NMRC, but he's also an assistant vice president at Issue Dynamics. He cannot stand on one foot and say he is collecting independent thought on a subject and produce a report entirely biased in one direction while standing on the foot and collecting his salary from Issue Dynamics.

In a reply to the article, Hepner writes, "...in February 2005, the New Millennium Research Council (NMRC) brought together six respected and independent national experts to provide a critical review of municipal entry into the broadband market. These experts, from noted institutions around the country, offered thoughtful critiques of this issue, but were labeled as disreputable by opposing interests."

I traced the funding and relationship of the report authors and related parties in a post months ago with a detailed chart showing the relationship between Verizon, Issue Dynamics, NMRC, its board members, and several other involved organizations.. Many of them cannot be reasonably said to be independent. All of them share the mindset of the clients of Issue Dynamics.

NMRC did not solicit a range of opinion, nor did they do primary research, relying largely in the report on previous reports that have flaws that have been well documented but which Hepner disregards as "An, 'I'm right, and you're simply wrong' diatribe" which ignores the mountains of articles and research that show the outdated underpinnings of the NMRC report--often relying on data from 1997 to 2001--simply don't represent a fair assessment.

The folks in favor of municipal networks have, in my experience, been much more supra rosa than Hepner maintains. He wants us to believe that lawyers, civic advocates, and government officials representing municipal interests are hiding these connections. I need some examples. Jim Baller is a very public, very active advocate for municipal networks. We know what Esme Vos of Muniwireless.com (who has told me she receives no funding from cities or towns) stands for. Civitium has its own, public agenda that they're following. The CIO of Philadelphia, Dianah Neff, isn't trying to disguise her interests.

None of these folks, whether you agree with their positions or not, are misleading reporters and the general public about which side their bread is buttered on. None of these folks is attempting to pretend to be independent. Most of them are providing documentation with first-person reporting that contradicts the second and thirdhand out of date and often inaccurate information provided by the NMRC in their report where facts are involved.

Now before I am labeled once again a tool of municipal networks and their supporters, let me state clearly: I am not in favor of nor opposed to municipal networks. I favor private firms taking the risk in situations where that is appropriate to produce host-neutral or wholesale broadband networks. In cases in which private partners cannot be found and the necessity is great, municipalities might take on the network building themselves.

But in all cases, I favor self determination. Cities and towns need to be able to decide what is best for themselves when their public and private survival is at stake: a lack of connectivity and ubiquitous access reduces business activity and development, and leads to wrack and ruin. Incumbents don't argue otherwise; they maintain that they're the only parties with the right to provide service.

Is it a coincidence with a number of we bloggers have been so aggressive about pulling back the curtain on the puppet show that Issue Dynamics has just launched its Blogger Relations Practice? "Says [EVP Ken] Deutsch, "The Internet is for whoever writes it - that's either you, your competitors or your critics doing the postings. IDI helps our clients get their messages out right - in the right places, in the right context and with the right tone.' "

[Image in the public domain courtesy Wikipedia.]

5 Comments

What's that chant I hear? "Keep the pressure, ON!"
"Keep the pressure, ON!" It's all about squeezing the most mileage and cash flow out of aging copper infrastructure until the private fiber networks can get built out, keeping the barriers to entry high enough, until the incumbents can foist the hundred year old copper plant on the public and then say we're all for competition and then throw open the gates to the copper COs. I think structural separation needs to be brought up again, where fair, open access to that natural monopoly last mile is enforced and smaller, more innovative companies can step in and provide real solutions to people that want them. Municipalities taking control of the assets within their borders is the first step. If you have to do it at the village level, do it.

As Yoda will say, "Begun, the last mile wars have" with "Get Up, Stand Up" as the background music.

Glenn,

We are in the business of helping organizations -- business and non-profits alike -- identify those who agree with them and then helping those "other voices" get heard. We do work for a wide variety of business and non-profit interests. Some of our work involves identifying academics and helping them publish their views. Some of our work involves helping educate public officials.

That is the business we are in, and I think it serves a good purpose. You clearly have a problem with how NMRC does its part of our work. I suspect though had the papers endorsed wi-fi (despite your protestations to the contrary) this would not have become a cause for you. Indeed, your audience and constituency is pro-Muni Wi Fi.

We have many clients and the clients set the terms of the engagements with us (though we certainly advise them), and we are bound by those terms.

It is very difficult to engage in a productive discussion either of the "process" -- that is your objections to how we do our business --- or to the merits of the papers that were released in the face of the use of ridicule and derision. The attacks and us of "sock puppet" mockery is obviously a personal attack and seem more designed to create attention and readership than substantive discussion. Your choice -- your venue.


I am very proud of the 19 year history of our company and the work we do and have done. Some of our best work has resulted in major public interest provisions of the telecom laws; and the early and best use of new internet technologies for advocacy by both non-profit and corporate organizations. If our work on muni-wi fi results in closer scrutiny and better decision making by public entities in deciding on how to deal with wi-fi, then we will have helped do something positive in this arena.

I would be more than glad to discuss any issue on the merits in a respectful manner with you or others, and I welcome private conversation at ssimon@idi.net

Sam, I'm so pleased you jumped in to engage here. I use the term sock puppets to disparage the lack of transparency and disclosure by the NMRC on behalf of your clients not as a personal attack. I don't know you or any of the folks involved. I love the work that IDI did for the Unitarian Church and its SpongeBob response.

I find it interesting to be painted as pro-municipal wireless, which is not really my articulated stance. I'm in favor of local self determination, and in some places municipal networks make sense. If the report had been pro-municipal wireless and had contained the kinds of conflicts of interest, hidden funding, misdirection, and misrepresentation of fact that the NMRC report did, I would have had the same reaction and pursued it.

The Free Press report that examines the networks that are cited as failures in a variety of reports referenced by the NMRC report and elsewhere, for instance, I spent some time reviewing. I didn't find any ties between the Free Press and its sponsoring and related organizations that showed dollars flowing from vested interests such as equipment makers like Intel, elected officials, or private firms in competition with incumbents who might benefit from the Free Press report.

My examination of the details of the Free Press report show that their statements of fact jibe with publicly available financial information from the municipal networks they reviewed, from first-hand reporting and interviews, from information provided by sources who wished to remain anonymous, and other sources. I do still need to follow up (in my copious spare time) on the Ashland Fiber Network, which appears to be the one municipal network that has financial difficulties according to several accounts and the Medford, Ore., newspaper.

I've been pursuing my label of the NMRC as a sock puppet because of a few factors:

* Many reporters were unaware that the NMRC was an arm of IDI. Allen doesn't disclose his employment at IDI. The NMRC information doesn't disclose the relationship. In the interests of transparency, that's needed. If, in the future, the NMRC and Hepner clearly identifies itself in this way, it's not a sock puppet.

* The NMRC report was proceeded by advance comment from folks who have vested interests that weren't disclosed. Many of the people cited in that advance comment work for organizations for which Verizon and other incumbents with vested interests are primary or significant funders.

* The telephone conference at which the NMRC report was announced was, according to the reports I spoke to, full of questions about the NMRC's funding as well as the sources of funding of authors of the report. A Bloomberg reporter posted this on my site in the comments section after that phone call: "I found their presentation to be so overtly one-sided, and their failure to support many of their generalizations so patent, that their teleconference wasn't helpful. I feel that they misinformed me when I asked the panel if any had a "pecuniary" interest in any of the telcom companies that oppose municipal broadband." (http://wifinetnews.com/archives/004765.html)

* Many of the people involved in and around the NMRC report work for organizations that will not reveal their funding or membership. This makes it impossible to understand their bias and relationship to vested interests.

* The NMRC site dropped its board of directors list after I and others started promoting the connection between IDI and NMRC. Why? The entire board of directors has direct ties to organizations funded by IDI, Verizon, and other incumbents. If the board of directors information and other detail that more fully explains the NMRC's relationship to IDI is reposted, that would be a great start.

I thought the Consumer Union advocate's quote was pretty damning. The problem isn't funding per se; it's disclosure. You'll see here on the site that I recanted calling the PFF a sock puppet because they rightly pointed out that they not only disclose their funding, but they publish reports that sometimes contradict public stances by their funders. I wrote a long analysis of the report by Adam Thierer at the PFF because of this. (I did, by the way, analyze the NMRC report at length, and agreed with some parts of it, notably David McClure's advice on how to build a network with accountability.)

What I found problematic about the NRMC and the PFF report is a lack of academic rigor that would allow contrary ideas and facts to be presented in context, examined, and refuted. Instead, the worldview is from a single perspective into which not the smallest shred of doubt or contradiction may enter. That's not the real world.

I do agree, however, that the NMRC has provoked an incredibly healthy debate on the subject and has, in fact, prompted the change in municipal broadband plans from taxpayer funded to risk-offset. This is a significant shift from previous efforts, and I just wish the path to get there had been aboveboard.

Glenn,

NMRC's site does refer to itself as a project of IDI. IDI's site refers to NRMC as a project of IDI, and as its research capability.

As I said before, we are often constrained by clients as to levels of specific details. We do not hide that there are industry support. We are clear that our business model is to help clients identify supportive voices.

So, the issue to me is the extensive campaign that you have launched and the effort and energy aimed at the messenger, versus the actual message. Your representation that you some how "undressed" NMRC/IDI , when your data is just taken off our web site puzzles me. Our involvement in the various work and activities is all published. Many of the groups you cite in your diagram and imply are someow doing something wrong fully disclose their funding and are our clients. We get paid by them, not the other way around. The level and energy of your work are way beyond what makes sense to me and I feel they are attacks -- not on the merits of the issue but on the firm.

Perhaps we can focus on a couple of points of agreement. We do good work for lots of clients. You like the UCC project, and so do I; and I like the work we did for Huaman Rights Campaign, or the work we did for then Bell Atlantic that let us help broker a deal on the e-rate; the report NMRC did on Broadband over Power Lines, among many things we have done.

We also agree the reports provoked healthy debate on the issues.

The authors are who they are; the papers say what they say. Clearly there are responses and we welcomed that they were produced.

We have our detractors and we have our supporters. A wise friend of mind - a mentor -- helped me understand how to deal with the attacks that sometimes come my way --- "It comes with the territory." We are not Consumers Union and we don't pretend to be. We are who we are and we do disclose it. It's where you got all your information. Let's move on.

Sam:

You can't play both sides of the fence and claim to be simply a messenger. Either you are a consumer advocate or you are a lobbyist - although you've tried to build a business to bridge the two. My site - UCCtruths.com - has been very, very critical of you and your relationship to the UCC. During the campaign against WorldCom, there was no disclosure anywhere (except for the Washington Post article) of your relationship to the UCC or other non-profits that staged protests against WorldCom. You have never come clean about the amount of money you paid the "Gray Panthers" for their ad campaign against WorldCom although the Gray Panthers claim it was most of the $200,000 the ad cost. If you think you are being honest in your diclosures, why didn't put IDI and Verizon on the ad?

And lets be clear on Muni Wi-Fi, your position does not represent the public interest, it represents IDI's interest.