Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Reporting Live From This Glass House

If an advocacy organization is going to report on an astroturfing front group, should it not be more transparent in its own donors? That is a stance I have maintained since I reported a truncated history of donations to the Tech Transparency Project’s parent organization, the Campaign for Accountability. Surely that should be a low bar to clear — acknowledge all significant funders and donors so there is no question about what interests they represent.

In 2020, Tony Romm of the Washington Post reported on Facebook’s involvement in a newly-formed advocacy group called American Edge. Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said it was one of many funders. But according to new reporting today, that claim does not appear to hold water.

Cat Zakrzewski and Elizabeth Dwoskin, the Post:

[…] But tax records show the organization was founded entirely by Facebook, with a single donation of $4 million between December 2019 and October 2020.

Facebook’s Stone once again replied to the Post’s request for comment, this time saying Facebook provided a “seed grant” to American Edge which now, he says, has many more financial supporters. That is plausible, but it is not yet possible to check since this filing is for its 2019 tax year and it is too new for it to appear in tax documents from other nonprofits.

Of note, the Post did not obtain these tax filings itself. They were provided by the Tech Transparency Project, which is dismayed by this astroturf group advocating for Facebook’s interests and hiding its funders. But there is one little thing that is bugging me, which the Post’s reporters asked the organization about:

“As a nonprofit that solicits donations from the public, we don’t release a comprehensive list of our donors,” said Michelle Kuppersmith, executive director of Campaign for Accountability, who oversees the Tech Transparency Project. “It would be incredibly rare to find a public-facing nonprofit that does so.” Kuppersmith added that they go beyond disclosure requirements for the Tech Transparency Project “because we are acutely aware that tech companies with resort to bad faith ad hominem attacks.”

In its original form, TTP was the Google Transparency Project and received a sizeable donation from legal rival Oracle. Could that be considered a “seed grant”? As I wrote before, I truly do not think the TTP is a front group for rivals of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, but the Campaign for Accountability steadfastly refuses to release a list of its major funders aside from what it lists on the TTP’s website. It is not a bad faith attack to question the sources of funding relied upon by organizations like the Campaign for Accountability or American Edge; it is a worthwhile cause, especially after their respective histories. As an advocacy group, the Campaign for Accountability should be much more transparent in its funding. It should be better than the organizations it calls out for astroturfing.

Aside from questions about funding, American Edge is an organization that runs ads promoting the advantages for the United States of a tech industry centred in the country. They lean heavily on a national security angle, dragging out former CIA officials and military leadership to warn that regulating American tech companies would permit Russia or China to “win the tech race”. It is not clear where the finish line is.

This fear-mongering and arguably xenophobic argument is a cynical attempt at averting any policy that interferes with the agenda of companies like Facebook. It is a zero-sum game that seeks to avoid new regulation by pointing to countries without similar rules and claiming they will have advantages. But many policy proposals are beneficial for Americans regardless of which company is providing services or where they are located. Better privacy rules, for example, would mean users would share less data with third parties and have less chance of it being exploited. A new report from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties found European internet users had their privacy and web activity exposed to advertisers about half as often as American users.

These ads also nearly make explicit the implicit advantage of an American tech industry unencumbered by stricter privacy rules or antitrust regulations: it makes its own intelligence gathering that much easier. The NSA continues to ingest unimaginable amounts of data produced by people around the world through its wiretapping arrangements. It is not supposed to access anything between Americans, but data generated by foreigners is fair game.

The NSA’s general counsel, Glenn S. Gerstell, used similar language — warning about “los[ing] the digital revolution” to Russia and China — in a 2019 editorial for the New York Times. His concern was the ongoing development of quantum computers and their ability to crack encryption standards. NIST is currently running competitions to develop new standards — standards which, the NSA says, it cannot crack nor do they have any back doors this time. I feel like I have seen this movie before.

It is unsurprising to me that big business has teamed up with influential figures to astroturf their way into minimizing oversight and regulation. These same cynical arguments are heard all the time. I am thankful the Tech Transparency Project was able to document such strong connections between Facebook and American Edge so there is a record of who, exactly, is bankrolling this ad campaign. But I wish we also knew more about the TTP and its parent organization, the Campaign for Accountability. This is an unlikeable story at every turn. At least one of these organizations should be doing a better job than it is now.