AT&T ventriloquist behind Voice?

May 21, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Consumers’ Voice, a self-described watchdog group fighting controversial broadband legislation in Washington, receives most of its funding from AT&T but does not disclose the connection on its Web site or in its ads.
Cable and phone giant AT&T is the staunchest opponent of the so-called Tauzin-Dingell legislation, which would deregulate the Bell phone monopolies so they can compete head-to-head with cable in the burgeoning broadband arena.
Consumers’ Voice has been lobbying against the bill in recent weeks through television, radio and print ads using the tagline “Speaking out for consumers.”
Meanwhile, the group pulled its membership roster from its site, www.consumersvoice.org, last Thursday in response to inquiries by Electronic Media.
This publication informed founder Robert K. Johnson on May 16 that it had contacted a few individuals listed as members, and they insisted they had never knowingly joined the group. “I’ve got verbal confirmations from everybody on the site,” Mr. Johnson said, after removing the names. His group had intended to follow up with enrollment cards to be signed and returned by prospective members.
“I believe it appears we did not get enrollment cards back from some of these people,” he conceded, noting that he’s now conducting an audit of the names and will recontact each one.
In press releases, Consumers’ Voice describes itself as a “national consumer group” and a “national telecom grassroots advocacy organization.”
But it’s hardly an independent player-it’s been siding with AT&T since its inception in 1999 and previously opposed Bell efforts to provide long distance, a key concern of the company.
During a spot check last week, Electronic Media was able to reach three of the hundreds of members. Each person reached said they had never heard of the group and had no idea their names were being used to oppose the Tauzin-Dingell bill.
Electronic Media was unable to contact additional members because identifying information was sketchy at best. Only names, and sometimes work affiliations, were provided, and the individuals were classified by region according to the Bell service territory they live in, not by state or town.
“How did I get on that?” asked Peter Kavanaugh, owner of the Middleboro Glass Co., in Middleboro, Mass.
“First of all, I take offense to it because I never authorized it,” he said. His last name is misspelled with a “C” on the site.
“I had no clue,” said Lisa Singleton, an employee at the Tyngsboro Flower Shop in Tyngsboro, Mass. “I’m curious as to how I got on there,” she said, expressing concern about the use of her name.
“It’s a total shock to me,” said Kateri Walsh, a resident of Springfield, Mass., and a former city council member there. “I don’t remember ever signing anything that says it would be broadcast on the Internet.”
All three use AT&T for long-distance or Internet service. But AT&T spokeswoman Claudia Jones insisted the company never furnished these or other names to Consumers’ Voice.
Mr. Johnson did say, however, that AT&T has provided him with names informally, such as when he has attended industry conferences and mingled with AT&T officials.
“I certainly know people at AT&T and certainly have talked to people at various conferences and things,” he said.
Despite the connections, AT&T officials said last week they don’t run the show at Consumers’ Voice.
“They’re certainly not a front group for AT&T,” Ms. Jones said.
“I would disagree with you that they’re espousing our views. We agree with their views,” she said, acknowledging, “We do support them. We support them financially.”
Mr. Johnson has no problem claiming to be a consumer group while receiving corporate money.
“I’m willing to take assistance from anyone who will further us in our goal of advocating an open, local telecommunications marketplace that will benefit consumers. The funding does not define the position,” he said, joking he would happily take Bell money if only they’d give it to him.
He also sees nothing unusual about his group’s decision not to disclose any connection to AT&T in its materials.
“It’s not as if we’re trying to hide funding sources,” he said. “We have an established agenda and consumer members who support that agenda. It is not to carry AT&T’s water.”
Mr. Johnson said the audit is the responsible thing to do. “I don’t want people to be members of an organization if they don’t stand up for it,” he said. “It doesn’t do me any good to trick people into signing up for anything.”
Consumers’ Voice is one of a half-dozen or so groups doing battle in Washington over the bill with ad campaigns, sophisticated Web sites and news conferences.
The others, such as ConnectUSA-which was founded by Baby Bell SBC Communications and Voices for Choice-which also receives considerable funding from AT&T, rely on subterfuge to mask or downplay their corporate supporters, often burying the information on their Web sites or disclosing only generic details.
But Mr. Johnson’s organization goes a step further with its claim to be a consumer group and its lack of any mention about its corporate link on its site.
Another unusual fact about Consumers’ Voice is that it is set up as a small business, rather than as a nonprofit entity.
By contrast, the highly regarded Consumers Union and similarly structured watchdogs are nonprofits and accept no corporate money.
Consumers Union spokesman David Butler said groups such as Consumers’ Voice, which purport to be consumer outfits but accept corporate money, “are deceptive at best” but are not doing anything illegal.
Consumers Union also opposes the Tauzin-Dingell bill but has rebuffed efforts by Mr. Johnson to lobby in tandem with Consumers’ Voice.
The Tauzin-Dingell bill would deregulate the Baby Bell phone companies so they can compete more effectively against cable broadband providers, such as AT&T. Supporters claim the bill would spur competition, but opponents call it a giveaway to the Bell phone monopolies.
It is authored by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the panel.