A Nonprofit Alliance Becomes an Ally of Big Telecom

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How well-meaning, public-serving groups wound up as part of an alliance aimed at undermining state regulation of broadband and privacy laws.

BY CHRIS WITTEMAN AND TRACY ROSENBERG -NOVEMBER 24, 2019

Originally published in 48 Hills.

It’s not unusual for businesses to spend princely sums lobbying government to free them from regulations, which generally means consumer protections are reduced or eliminated.  In a nutshell, that’s much of what goes on in the halls of government, as we’ve previously reported.

But it is a bit more unconventional when a self-described coalition of nonprofit organizations promotes the same agenda as large telecom companies, putting consumers at the short end of the stick.

In April, The Nonprofit Alliance went to Washington to “TNPA members educated lawmakers on the need for responsible federal data regulation that offers the same personal privacy rights to everyone in the U.S. rather than state-by-state laws and enforcement.” That’s what Big Telecom wants.

This is especially so when the nonprofit coalition takes anti-consumer positions that may be directly at odds with those of its nonprofit members.

The weaponization of nonprofit advocacy and service organizations has been ongoing in Sacramento (and Washington) for years, although it seems to have risen recently to new levels of duplicity and complexity.

If you were hanging around Sacramento this legislative year, for example, you couldn’t help but run into The Nonprofit Alliance, a newly constituted advocacy group which claimed to be the voice of nonprofits.  You might have heard them arguing that regulation of AT&T and Comcast’s broadband service would harm nonprofits and possibly put them out of business, or that California’s newly enacted privacy law went too far in protecting consumers.

So who, or what, is The Nonprofit Alliance?  It was incorporated in Washington DC in January of 2019.  According to the Nonprofit Times,the organization is a newly-minted merger of two former advocacy organizations, the Data Marketing Association, a coalition of for-profit advertising and marketing companies, and American Charities for Reasonable Fundraising Regulation, whose legacy website features a board of directors with members from the National Catholic Development Conference, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and Disabled Veteran Americans.

But TNPA’s website contains none of this messy history. The story it tells is about the noble mission of its listed nonprofit members, well-established groups like AARP, Doctors Without Borders, and the Environmental Defense Fund, while neglecting to mention the business interests of the for-profit marketing firms which comprise two-thirds of its membership.  Under the rubric “Our Story”, the Alliance waxes poetic:

The Nonprofit Alliance represents a diverse landscape of causes. We feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, rescue the lost, stand up for our veterans, advocate for the neglected, search for cures, protect the threatened, and help piece together communities after disasters.

Its predecessor, the Data Marketing Association, was more honest in describing  its mission as “helping marketers seize the full potential of their data.”

Jan Masaoka, the CEO of CalNonprofits and an expert in the field, took umbrage at The Nonprofit Alliance describing itself as the “voice of nonprofits.”  In a phone call, she was blunt. “They’re a front for marketing companies.  It’s disheartening that authentic nonprofits would put their name on this.”

Shortly after being formed, TNPA got down to business.  The DC-based business association hired a Sacramento lobbying firmNoteware and Rosa Government Relations.  (Since we began reporting this story, the firm has deleted all mention of Chris Rosa and TNPA from its website, although they are still found on the firm’s Secretary of State filings).  Its lobbyists Chris Rosa and Bless Shepherd began showing up at Sacramento policy hearings on behalf of TNPA.

On April 24th, Rosa appeared at a California Assembly Communications and Conveyance Committee hearing to speak in support of  AB 1366, a bill being pushed by big telecom, including AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon.  AB 1366 proposed to extend the deregulation of California’s broadband and wireless providers, keeping them free from any meaningful state oversight for years to come.  It was an extension of  the industry’s initial deregulation, sponsored by then State Senator Padilla and passed in 2012 (SB 1161).   That bill was a disaster.  It “enabled [telecom] companies to disregard California law,” and contributed to higher prices, fewer choicesand poorer service for Californians who connect to the Internet.   (After our previous article on this subject, Assemblywoman Gonzalez withdrew her sponsorship and Governor Newsom indicated he would not sign the bill, so AB 1366 was put on the shelf until next year.) TNPA did not respond to our request for comment on its support of AB 1366.

Rosa’s April testimony was remarkable, and started barely five minutes into the hearing: “Nonprofits rely on access to data,” she began,  but state oversight of the broadband telecommunications network would result in “higher prices for data,” causing nonprofits to reduce service or even shut their doors.  Rosa then doubled down, invoking “our partners” at the United Farm Workers, and claiming that, if broadband Internet access were regulated, farm workers would not receive “key information … about their rights under State law, including shade, water, protective clothing [and] sexual harassment.”

It remains unclear whether the UFW had any idea that its name was being invoked in this way.  UFW did not respond to our request for comment.

Rosa’s pitch was certainly news to other nonprofits sitting in the Assembly hearing room, nonprofits that opposed AB 1366  —  public interest, communications justice and digital inclusion advocacy groups like TURN and EFF, which for years have pointed to the broadband oligopoly that keeps prices high, redlines poorer neighborhoods, and provides Internet access service that is slower and more expensive than much of the developed world.

The Nonprofit Alliance lobbyists were back on July 10 at the California Senate Energy Utility and Communications Committee hearing on AB 1366, where TNPA’s Bless Shepherd was part of the sponsor’s presentation, appearing (like Rosa) as a leadoff speaker within the first minutes of the hearing.   Shepherd read what her colleague had presented in the Assembly, adding the astonishing assertion that removing an entire utility (broadband access service) from the oversight of the state’s utility regulator would not in any way weaken consumer protections. She suggested that the Legislature itself, which has no enforcement staff and which doesn’t even meet for a quarter of the year, would do great at policing AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.  (Even the California Attorney General was constrained to note that enforcement should be done by “an agency that possesses the administrative tools and the subject-matter expertise in utility regulation, an agency such as the CPUC.”)

While AB 1366 was a Nonprofit Alliance priority, AB 1366 was not the only or even the chief advocacy project in the first year of TNPA’s existence.  The group also strongly opposed California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA, which is scheduled to go into effect in 2020 as the strongest privacy law in the country).   And no wonder: CCPA gives people the opportunity to find out what information businesses are collecting about them, where it is being sold, and to opt out of those sales if they so choose.

TNPA’s operations are illuminated on the “Policy” page of its website.  It shows the organization’s Washington DC “Hill Day” in April 2019 —  a smiling group of preponderantly white marketeers surrounding Democratic Senator Chris Coons on the sunny Capital steps

The reported subject of the Coons meeting was a proposed repeal on taxes for nonprofit employee benefits.  But under the happy smiling people is a statement revealing TNPA’s true mission that day: an end to state data privacy laws, sold as “the need for responsible federal data regulation … rather than state-by-state laws and enforcement.” Their position is that a nonexistent federal data privacy law should pre-empt California’s data privacy law, a position shared by big tech companies like Google and Facebook.  It’s also the position of the Trump Administration, which straightaway repealed the strong Obama-era federal data privacy rules.

Back in Sacramento, the unholy alliance of Chamber of Commerce, big tech’s advocacy instruments like Tech Net and the Internet Association, and their nonprofit cheerleaders like TNPA introduced more than two dozen different bills to water down the CCPA.  It all came to a head on July 9thwhen a blizzard of industry bills were presented to the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Santa Barbara Democrat with a strong commitment to privacy rights.

Jackson was determined to preserve the CCPA but faced a small army of lobbyists; she also had a committee to convince. A coalition of nonprofit privacy advocates including Consumer Reports, Common Sense Media, the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Oakland Privacy and Media Alliance (one of the authors of this piece is part of this coalition), worked closely with Jackson and the Committee and, despite limited resources, was successful in helping her hold off the business offensive.  One bill, AB 873, which would have changed the definition of personal information so broadly as to render the CCPA a nullity, failed on a 3Y, 3N, 3A vote, the narrowest possible margin of victory.

Even after this defeat, TNPA tried to get Jackson off the oversight job, sending off a letter demanding that the State Legislature remove jurisdiction from the Judiciary committee because chair Jackson was “strident” and the committee “inhospitable,” as if she were presiding over a high tea and not a legislative body.

Among the arguments:

We use consumer data and third-party data providers to ensure our marketing messages are delivered to those most likely to benefit—and, likewise, not to those who will not. If, for example, a consumer purchases a pair of hiking boots from an outdoor sports retailer, we know they may be inclined to support environmental and nature conservancy efforts. Without this data, nonprofits cannot effectively connect with donors.

The Nonprofit Alliance membership mixes for-profit marketing agencies, direct mail processors, data analytics and “geo-targeting” providers with nonprofits like AARP, the Nature Conservancy, Doctors without Borders, and Food and Water Watch.

But when these organizations were asked about TNPA’s actions – and specifically if their members and donors in California wanted them to work to deregulate broadband telecommunications or weaken California’s privacy law, or whether they had even notified their members and donors in California that they were spending organizational funds to subsidize such lobbying, most were silent. Only Food and Water Watch responded, and then only to say that they would look into it.

One possibility is that the nonprofit members of The Nonprofit Alliance may not even know what is being said and done in their name.   AARP-California, for instance, one of TNPA’s largest founding “visionary” members, formally opposed AB 1366 on behalf of its California’s senior citizen members.

Consumer protections are in the public interest, which includes the interests of the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who send in their modest donations to big nonprofits in the hope they are doing their bit to save the planet and protect the vulnerable.  Most of them would never imagine their gifts would be repurposed for the defense of AT&T and Facebook in the name of philanthropy.  And if they knew about it, they probably wouldn’t like it.

The story we report here is only one aspect of how corporate America uses nonprofits to further its agenda.  In addition to the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing approach of TNPA, the nonprofit taxonomy includes pure “astroturf” groups created without any organic membership by corporations seeking to influence public policy (such as the energy industry’s Empowerment Alliance and the plastic industry’s Californians for Recycling and the Environment), as well as existing (and sometimes even venerable) nonprofits which agree to sign on to the agenda of the capital class in return for large contributions.

The story isn’t entirely bleak. A new wave of political candidates is making grassroots campaign financing a priority.  Assembly Bill 1366 has failed (for now).  The CCPA is intact (for now).

So, if you gave a dollar or two to any TNPA member group, if you bought a Medicare gap policy from AARP, or a tote bag from the Nature Conservancy, say something.  When you see a group advocating for policies that seem totally against the interests of those they claim to represent, call it out.

Silence about the co-option of charities, big and small, by corporations and third party astroturf groups is what allows the nonprofit-washing of the corporate deregulatory agenda.

Telecom regulators and legislators in particular have been besieged for years by a parade of putative nonprofits earnestly asserting that what is good for AT&T is good for all.  It’s time to get these kinds of pretenders out of the policy debate, or to clearly label them for what they are.

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