by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
Tomorrow the House Special Committee on Utilities will consider SB 284, the Missouri Video Franchise Bill. I wrote Feb. 6 that SB 284 is a bad bill. It would reduce public oversight of the cable companies that use public easements, it would essentially eliminate local PEG (public, education and government) channels, it would allow telecom companies to cherry-pick high-profit customers, and it would reduce the ability of government to audit those companies for compliance with the law.
After that column, the president of AT&T in Missouri, Cynthia Brinkley, wrote a letter to the editor to set the record straight. She assured Tribune readers AT&T has the public’s interest at heart and just wants us all to enjoy the benefits of increased competition.
Perhaps I was just too cynical. After all, the Missouri Communications Alliance, a Missouri not-for-profit grass-roots organization established to “further the common good and general welfare of the citizens of the State of Missouri,” applauded the passage of SB 284 in the Senate. Of course you have heard of the Missouri Communications Alliance, or MCA. No? Well, me neither, but with a name like that it must be good.
Turns out, I wasn’t too cynical after all. The MCA is not a grass-roots organization but an example of a disturbing trend in lobbying — the astroturf organization. “Astroturfing” is when a corporation sets up a dummy not-for-profit organization to lobby legislators. These organizations claim to be grass-roots-based groups when in fact they are representing a corporation’s interest.
The Missouri Communications Alliance was established by the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Holtzman & Vogel, which has created numerous astroturf organizations, some of which the Federal Election Commission is investigating. This law firm set up the MCA to help pass SB 284, presumably as part of its work for AT&T. It is difficult to determine which company is really behind the MCA. Identity protection is a major advantage of running astroturf operations through a law firm.
In her letter, Cynthia points out other states are embracing this type of deregulation, implying we can expect similar benefits for Missourians if SB 284 is enacted into law.
Consider what happened in Maryland, where Verizon was allowed to enter into the cable television business last November to bring the benefits…