ALEC Threatens To Sue Critics That Point Out It Helps Keep Broadband Uncompetitive

As you might have read, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been losing some major clients lately, including Google, T-Mobile and Microsoft. Those companies have been quietly distancing themselves from ALEC, after critics have illustrated its ties to legislative assaults on climate change science and meaningful pollution standards. Before Google announced it was leaving the group last fall, chairman Eric Schmidt went so far as to accuse the legislative grist mill of “literally lying” about its role in climate change denial. In a response letter to Google, ALEC proclaimed Google’s departure was “based on misinformation from climate activists who intentionally confuse free market policy perspectives for climate change denial.”

With T-Mobile, AOL, and Facebook quietly following in Google’s footsteps (but not publicizing the reason for their departures), ALEC has apparently decided that its best course of action is to threaten lawsuits against those claiming ALEC denies climate change. ALEC has sent cease and desist letters (pdf) to a number of critics like Common Cause, the letters directing groups to the ALEC website where the organization insists it’s not a opposed to climate change — it’s simply a “market environmentalist” dedicated to the “betterment of human health and well-being.”

Apparently climate change isn’t the only sensitive topic for ALEC as the outfit tries to stem the flow of client departures. The group has also been sending cease and desist letters to companies like wirelesss MVNO Credo Mobile, which in recent months has been sending its subscribers missives hammering ALEC for its role in fighting community broadband. The small company markets itself as having an activist, pro-consumer edge, and has scored exceptionally well on the EFF’s privacy report card.

Credo’s been busy pointing out to its subscribers how ALEC’s model legislation, clearly visible on ALEC’s website, has been used as the framework for roughly twenty state-level protectionist broadband bills nationwide. As we’ve frequently discussed, these bills are the worst sort of protectionist dreck, shoveled into the legislative bloodstream by the likes of AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink to protect its duopoly power from communities desperate for something better. Credo frames ALEC’s participation in these efforts this way in a recent notice to subscribers:

“The American Legislative Exchange Council—a shadowy corporate front group that works to enact discriminatory voter ID laws, weaken gun safety laws and eliminate environmental regulations—is now pressuring state legislatures around the country to ban cities from offering broadband Internet access. ALEC is pushing its anti-municipal broadband agenda through model legislation it has developed, which one municipal broadband advocate described as “the kind of language one would expect to see if the goal is to protect politically powerful cable and telephone company monopolies.” Many perennial funders and members of ALEC, including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner [Cable], stand to gain financially from these state laws because they eliminate the possibility of competition from city-run broadband services.”

In its cease and desist letter to Credo, ALEC first proclaims it’s a respected think tank, not a lobbying apparatus. It also insists it doesn’t “block” municipal broadband, the group simply advocates encumbering towns and cities with “certain steps,” should they be interested in building their own broadband:

“We demand that you cease making inaccurate statements regarding ALEC, and immediately remove all false or misleading material from the Working Assets and Credo Action or related websites and action pages within five business days,” the letter, dated March 5, reads. “Should you not do so, and/or continue to publish any defamatory statements, we will consider any and all necessary legal action to protect ALEC.”

ALEC contends that it does not oppose city broadband but only advocates that certain “steps” be required before a municipality can provide telecom services. Additionally, ALEC takes issue with Credo labeling it as an organization that lobbies state legislatures at all, arguing that it is merely a “think-tank for state-based public policy issues and potential solutions.”

How exactly can you claim you don’t oppose municipal broadband when you’ve played a starring role in opposing municipal broadband? Because many of the bills ALEC helps pass don’t technically “block” municipal broadband. They are however usually saddled with language by ISP lawyers that effectively does the same thing. For example most of the bills prohibit communities from getting into the broadband business if their market is “served” by an existing provider. They then go on to define “served” to include satellite and cellular connections, while using extremely generous versions of zip code coverage analysis. Similarly ALEC doesn’t lobby to pass these bills directly, their incumbent ISPs client do that.

Regardless, Credo Mobile doesn’t appear to be too worried about ALEC’s threat, sending the organization a response letter (pdf) illustrating that not only does ALEC’s own website document its opposition to municipal broadband, but so have numerous news outlets:

“Not only does ALEC attempt to influence legislative outcomes, it clearly succeeds in doing so. As recounted in a 2011 Bloomberg News article, ALEC’s model legislation on municipal broadband was the principal reason why cable companies were able to block Lafayette, Louisiana from offering high speed Internet access to its citizens (editor’s note: Lafayette was ultimately able to offer gigabit connections via LUS Fiber, but only after a protracted legal fight against regional incumbents Cox and BellSouth (now AT&T)).

“Under these circumstances, the language used in the statements you challenge — “working to make sure it never happens” and “pressuring state legislatures” — is well within the bounds of political discourse in making the point that ALEC’s model legislation and positions have the intent and effect of encouraging enactment of state legislation effectively banning cities from offering broadband Internet access.”

It’s not entirely clear what ALEC hopes to accomplish here, as its role in both climate change and municipal broadband is pretty clearly established by documentable history, news reports, and the legislative process itself. It’s kind of like the town drunk, after months of being videotaped punching clowns in the face, becoming foul-mouthed and indignant at the mere mention of the odd number of clown black eyes around town. In fact the behavior is only bringing additional critical attention to ALEC’s longstanding role as an organization that’s useful to corporations looking to quietly shovel bad legislation through financially compromised state legislatures with the bare minimum of fuss or actual public debate.

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