Undercover persuasion by tech industry lobbyists

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 24, 2010; A01

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."

Finding the like-minded

It's particularly effective because the aides and staffers involved in setting tech policy are also big social-media users. An FCC source said the agency pays attention to conversation on social Web sites, and aides on the Hill say they notice when Facebook friends post stories or write status updates about tech issues.

Just about everyone in these policy wars has a person like Rodriguez to fire off e-mails to their group list, re-tweet links of stories that support their position, and create fan pages on Facebook for their policy events and causes.

Verizon hired John Czwartacki last year to blog for its policy site and tweet from tech policy events. The Center for Democracy and Technology, a public-interest group funded by foundations and companies including Google and Comcast, hired Adam Rosenberg to do the same because of his political social media smarts from working on President Obama's campaign. Free Press, a public-interest group with no corporate sponsors, has fueled a tweeting rally around net neutrality to get 2 million people to sign a petition for new rules. Comcast's and Sprint's policy spokesmen have taken to Twitter, too, tweeting from congressional hearings and musing about technology policy.

"If you are trying to engage as many people as possible, social media is tremendous. . . . I don't know what I would call it. A tactic? I guess so, because it is very valuable tactically to connect with people who are like-minded," said Jonah Seiger, managing partner of Connections Media, which represents clients including Google and Skype as part of a pro-net neutrality group called the Open Internet Coalition.

The coalition's Twitter profile says it represents consumers, grass-roots organizations and businesses. After opening a link to the group's Web site, a casual observer would also have to go through a couple more links to determine the organization's funding sources, which include Google, Amazon and Facebook.

"We're all stumbling through this . . . but we are trying to be as transparent as possible," said Eric London of the Open Internet Coalition.

Veiled identities

That push for transparency is more difficult as online personalities like Jon Henke become more influential in policy debates.

Henke came from Republican campaigns and has used social media sites as a path into the clubby tech policy circles of Washington. Virtually unknown a couple of years ago, he earned a spot on a "social media influencer" panel at the State of the Net conference held by the Congressional Internet Caucus in January. His 4,000 followers get peppered each day with tweets about his young children, his Libertarian views and calls for few technology regulations.

It takes a few clicks from his Twitter page to find his connection to Arts+Labs, which funds his months-old coalition, Digital Society, and to learn who, specifically, is behind Arts+Labs. He did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Rodriguez, the cable blogger, is a PR veteran for cable companies and spends much of the day tweeting and writing on the comment boards of tech policy Web sites.

Asked why he doesn't identify himself clearly on his Twitter profile and why he doesn't link to NCTA's Web site, he said it isn't necessary. But he admits it's difficult for an observer to tell who he is and whether his opinions are his own or those of an employer.

"Yeah, I guess I'm wearing both my personal and NCTA hat on Twitter," said Rodriguez, who uses his full name, Paul Rodriguez, at NCTA. "But I think it's clear to anyone who reads my Twitter feed who I am. I don't say on my profile that I work for NCTA because it feels redundant."

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