How lobbyists cloak themselves as consumers to push a corporate agenda

The consumer movement is trusted and respected for its role as an impartial watchdog, which allows it to fearlessly hold governments and businesses to account for infringing consumers' rights. But this trust and respect is a valuable commodity, and businesses would do anything to get a piece of it.

An easy (but deceitful) way for them to do this is to establish fake consumer organisations or campaigns to advance their corporate interests. On the surface these look like they have sprung from the grassroots, but actually the sentiments supposedly being expressed by consumers are artificial – which gave this practice the name “astroturfing”, after a brand of artificial grass.

Well-known examples of astroturfing “consumer” organisations from the tech sector (some of them now defunct) have included Consumers' Voice (AT&T), Consumers for Competitive Choice (AT&T and Verizon), Consumers First (AT&T and Verizon again), the American Consumer Institute (AT&T and friends yet again), Americans for Technology Leadership (Microsoft) and the Digital Citizens Alliance (Microsoft and others). Sometimes these front organisations also contain some legitimate members or tackle some legitimate consumer issues, but are still either majority funded by corporate donors or corporate-linked foundations, or have directors or staff with close links to industry.

More subtly, industry will often openly fund a campaign, organisation or event, in the hope that this may influence its agenda. This month a Dubai World Conference on Consumer Rights was held, for which the principal sponsor was Pepsico, and which explicitly emphasised in its agenda the “benefits of IPR and patent laws”. Earlier I called Microsoft out on their “Consumer Action Day”, an orchestrated event in which consumers supposedly called on Microsoft to protect them against software piracy.

Although Consumers International refuses funding from corporations and corporate-linked foundations, we are still occasionally approached by lobbyists who seek to advance corporate interests (either directly or through a front organisation), who would love to be able to say that they have the support of the global consumer movement. Over the past year this has included an approach from yet another anti-piracy initiative, and several approaches related to the imminent release of new generic top-level domain names for the Internet.

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