At a time when people are increasingly skeptical of whose interests are really being represented by public advocacy groups, and various civic and social associations, “follow the money trail” analysis has become a more pervasive tactic to undermine an opponent’s arguments. Such is the case of a recent article by Inside Sources, which links fundraising by Free Press and Public Knowledge over the past ten years to their supposedly self-interested desire to see the net neutrality debate continue, perhaps beyond its logical conclusion.
While the exposé does find that Free Press and Public Knowledge benefit financially whenever the net neutrality debate flares to a fever pitch (as was the case in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 – all of which happened to be presidential or major congressional election years), it insinuates that money and prestige – rather than principle – is what drives the two organizations’ agendas and activities. Whether you agree or disagree with the Free Press/Public Knowledge ideology of how the Internet is regulated, what’s truly unfortunate about this kind of attack is that it seeks to undermine the organizations’ credibility merely because they accept financial support from corporations and individuals with which their ideologies are aligned.
Far too often in the telecommunications space this same tactic is used against civil rights and social justice organizations, or minority leaders, who do not fall in line with a narrowly defined view of how the open Internet should function and the role net neutrality plays in Internet oversight and operation. To be clear, a difference of opinion or evidence of corporate support does not mean and should not imply that an organization or individual representing its views publicly has been bought out or is in any way less capable or credible a source for a given view.
A more productive – albeit far less incendiary – approach is to judge arguments on their merit, bearing in mind the underlying interests, objectives, and beliefs of the organization or individual in question. True, this kind of approach is not as easy to condense into sound bytes, and it requires actual attention to and analysis of the specific propositions being put forth. But it is a far more worthy and meaningful way to address the myriad public policy issues we face as a nation.
Particularly in the tech and telecom landscape in which we currently live as an increasingly digital society, it benefits no one to disregard legitimate concerns just because corporate dollars may be in the mix. The reality is that it is highly likely that any and every non-profit organization involved in tech and telecom policy debates receive some level of funding from some corporation or entity that is involved with, touching, or reliant upon the vast Internet ecosystem that shapes our social, cultural, economic, and political realities. It is disingenuous, then, to try to devalue an organization or individual’s stance merely because a corporation contributed to a line item on someone else’s budget.
In our society, we depend on partnerships between individuals and the public and private sectors to advance our mutual interests. If we want to continue to take advantage of these partnerships – both because of the diversity of voices and viewpoints they support and the kinds of policies and programming possibilities they reap – we would be well served to leave the surface-level attacks behind and focus forward on the merits of the arguments we face.