Undercover persuasion by tech industry lobbyists

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 24, 2010

Why pay for a golf trip, dinner or full-page ad when you can tweet for free?

The influence peddlers of K Street have discovered the power of social networking on such Web sites as Twitter and Facebook. Using their own names without mentioning that they work in public relations or as lobbyists, employees of companies with interests in Washington are chattering online to shape opinions in hard-to-detect ways.

Take PJ Rodriguez, whose Twitter profile says he's a pop culture maven and cable blogger. He tweets about "American Idol," Dora the Explorer and wonky tech policy issues, like broadband jurisdiction at the Federal Communications Commission.

"Former FCC Chairman Powell: cable has never been regulated in a Title II common carrier fashion," he wrote recently, one of several 140-characters-or-fewer missives he fires off daily on the site.

What's not as clear is that he is a public relations staffer being supported by such companies as Comcast, Cox and Time Warner Cable as the Web 2.0 point person for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, an industry trade group. Nowhere on his profile does he mention NCTA or provide a link to its site.

Tweets, blogs and comments on news sites can draw big audiences and popular support for a variety of causes, from tech policy to health care and energy regulation. But they provide a shade of gray in the lobbying world, where enormous influence is being exercised with few rules of engagement about spending and disclosure.

"It's a bit of a Wild West, because anyone can be anyone on the Web and it's harder to tell where the line between work and the person's non-work life is," said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation. "The whole enterprise of lobbying disclosure is hard to apply hard-and-fast standards to and hard to regulate. Add to that the way we interact socially through technology, which is changing the lines around our traditional roles."

The hot policy debate

Not surprisingly, no industry is making better use of the new media than technology companies. The online tech policy debate has heated up since the Obama administration took up the divisive issue of net neutrality, the concept that Internet providers should not slow or block consumer access to any Web services. A recent federal court ruling that questioned the FCC's authority to police Internet access has thrown the issue into overdrive.

In the first quarter of 2010, AT&T spent $5.9 million on lobbying about policies including net neutrality, up 15 percent from the same period last year, according to Senate lobbying disclosure forms. Google boosted its lobbying budget 57 percent to $1.38 million. Comcast spent $3.1 million on lobbying -- much of it to convince lawmakers and regulators of the benefits of its proposed merger with NBC Universal.

Other efforts are harder to quantify. Verizon Communications this month funded an economic analysis presented by a George Mason University professor that warns new net neutrality rules would hurt investments for broadband networks. An economic adviser to then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney whose public relations clients include AT&T and Qualcomm organized a separate letter from economists against the new rule.

Those efforts aren't included in quarterly lobbying disclosures to Congress. Neither are tactics in persuasion on the Web, which some practitioners say are simply expressions of their personal opinions.

"In the old days, it used to be that lobbyists would visit their favorite congressman and make their argument," said Mike McCurry, former spokesman for President Bill Clinton and founder of Arts+Labs, an advocacy group funded by AT&T, Verizon, Viacom and NBC Universal that argues against net neutrality and for greater anti-piracy enforcement. "The Internet has become essential, and now people get known more in this world by who they are and how they express themselves."

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