A few weeks ago former Obama administration technology advisor Susan Crawford released her book Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. A wonky book, from an academic publisher, it has attracted a flurry of responses, that if one digs one layer below the surface are from authors whose institutions are connected to the very industry the book critiques.
Across the internet, a seemingly disconnected series of reviews appeared attacking the book, the author, and her premise – that giant telecom companies are bad for consumers and bad for the internet. The reviews were rounded up on the blog of Broadband for America, an advocacy group whose purported aim is “ensuring every American citizen has high quality access to the Internet.”
BFA cited reviews from American Enterprise Institute fellow Nick Schulz in the Wall Street Journal; NetCompetition chairman Scott Cleland in The Daily Caller; Free State Foundation president Randolph May; and Information Technology and Innovation Foundation fellow Richard Bennett.
Each of these critiques cited by Broadband for America comes from organizations that have ties to the telecom industry, either through membership or direct contributions. Broadband for America is tied directly to the industry as well - Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and Verizon are all part of their “coalition.”
Discussions of who finances our public policy process often focus on lobbying disclosure statements and campaign finance filings. The attacks on Susan Crawford are indicative of another layer that is all too often ignored: the funding of research and editorial efforts that are often directed by the same K-street firms that lobby lawmakers.
Reviews of Captive Audience that have no connection to any lobbying group take a strikingly different tone. In Time, for example, business and technology reporter Sam Gustin writes:
"Crawford’s book is the most important volume to be released in the last few years that describes the sad — some might say embarrassing – state of the U.S. telecommunications market. Reasonable people can and do disagree about policy solutions, but the facts are not in dispute. Americans have fewer choices for broadband Internet service than millions of other people in developed countries, yet we pay more for that inferior service. The reason for that, according to Crawford, is that U.S. policy makers have allowed a small number of highly profitable corporate giants to dominate the market, reducing competition and the incentives for these companies to improve service and lower prices."
Captive Audience’s aim is to explore not just the sorry state of the broadband internet market, but also the ways in which the big telecom companies have gamed the market and the regulatory agencies to ensure huge profits at the expense of competition and innovation. It is for this reason the volume of attacks on the book from those with connections to the industry reveals a certain skittishness. Crawford’s potential to draw back the curtain and reveal to consumers the raw deal they are getting, is what the telcom companies fear most.