Sodding the Commons

Netroots Wisconsin hosts Uniting the Cheddarsphere in Madison today. They tapped me for the panel “Fighting Astroturf-Based Telecom Policy and a Corporate Broadband Future.”

Astroturf? Whazzat? Take a look at this excerpt from a letter filed with the FCC by the “Arkansas Retired Seniors Coalition,” a group that leaves no trace of itself on the web:

Astroturf is worse than boilerplate. All of our favorite causes gather strength from organizing people to send boilerplate letters urging political action of one kind or another. Astroturf raises the bar by adding deception… letters are sent from fictional people and fictional groups.

Corporate broadband, if it belongs anywhere, belongs in the national-regional high-speed bulk transport business. Middle mile and last mile services should be publicly owned and operated, like they do in Reedsburg and countless other communities across the USA.

Long ago the Wisconsin Public Service Commission was subverted by the endless pressure and litigation by private companies that control the natural monopolies of the public service markets. The situation is described like this in Wikipedia:

Regulatory capture occurs when a state regulatory agency created to act in the public interest instead acts in favor of the commercial or special interests that dominate in the industry or sector it is charged with regulating. Regulatory capture is a form of government failure, as it can act as an encouragement for large firms to produce negative externalities. The agencies are called Captured Agencies.

For public choice theorists, regulatory capture occurs because groups or individuals with a high-stakes interest in the outcome of policy or regulatory decisions can be expected to focus their resources and energies in attempting to gain the policy outcomes they prefer, while members of the public, each with only a tiny individual stake in the outcome, will ignore it altogether. Regulatory capture refers to when this imbalance of focused resources devoted to a particular policy outcome is successful at “capturing” influence with the staff or commission members of the regulatory agency, so that the preferred policy outcomes of the special interest are implemented.

Citizens, customers of the monopolists that have freed themselves of regulation, as individuals have little motivation to influence government about specific complicated regulatory discussions. The monopolists themselves are highly motivated to remain free of public oversight and regulation so they manipulate the market using lobbyists and public relations campaigns to keep the regulators off balance.

Here are some links to information about a few of the astroturf groups identified by

American Consumer Institute
Dick Armey’s “Freedom Works”
David Koch’s “Americans for Prosperity”