Bloggers unite to save astroturfing for Mankind

Is this a bandwagon you really want to jump on?

Silicon Justice Apparently, the blogosphere buys into every press release they read.

In an all-too-familiar scene, bloggers, Slashdot readers and several news outlets were taken in by the hype surrounding a provision in the Senate ethics reform bill that would have required grassroots lobbying firms to register with the US Congress.

Conservative direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie whipped the blogging community into a frenzied, and largely misdirected, opposition to the provision by trumpeting the section's supposed threat to First Amendment rights, freedom, Mom and apple pie.

Section 220 of the reform bill, the grassroots provision, was removed by an amendment prior to the bill's passage late last week, largely because of a blitzkrieg campaign in the media, the blogosphere and on Capitol Hill by Viguerie's advertising firm, American Target Advertising.

Viguerie, for those not familiar with the tarnished panoply of backroom players in American politics, pioneered the use of direct mail techniques for conservative causes, and has been called the "funding father" of the modern conservative movement. His ad agency currently handles direct mail campaigns for non-profits seeking to stimulate grassroots activity or raise funds from the general public.

Section 220 was designed to shed light on so-called "Astroturf" campaigns - seemingly grassroots campaigns that are in fact funded and guided by lobbying or PR firms, usually on behalf of large corporate clients. It would have required lobbying firms or individuals who were retained for "paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying" to register with the US Congress, similar to the registration requirement currently in place for K Street lobbyists.

Because of clumsy wording that would have included an employer in the definition of a "client," the requirement would have applied to anyone who, in the service of their employer, engaged in the stimulation of grassroots lobbying designed to influence more than 500 people, as long as the organization spent over $25,000 per quarter on the activity. Thus, anyone who was paid $25,000 per quarter to maintain a weblog with a readership of more than 500 people would have to register with Congress under section 220 if they spent all of their time encouraging the general public to contact an executive or legislative official over a matter of public policy.

While this undoubtedly represents an onerous burden for all those richly paid, grassroots-stimulating bloggers out there, the Senate could have easily fixed the problem by changing the definition of "client" as it applies to grassroots lobbying to exclude an employer. That way, an organization that wanted to start a grassroots blog campaign wouldn't have to register as a grassroots lobbying firm, since it would fall outside the definition for "paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying."

That solution wouldn't have worked for American Target Advertising, however, since it is retained by actual external clients to stimulate grassroots lobbying. Even with the fix, section 220 still would have forced the agency to register as a grassroots lobbying firm.

Thus, instead of putting pressure on the Senate to fix a well-intentioned - but poorly executed - proposal, ATA launched a scare campaign aimed at convincing the blogging community that the federal government was waiting in the wings to send its critics in the blogosphere to jail if they failed to register as grassroots lobbyists.

According to a press release entitled Congress to Send Critics to Jail issued by Mark Fitzgibbons, also of ATA, on behalf of Richard Viguerie, section 220 threatened to plunge the United States into the darkness of totalitarianism. GrassrootsFreedom.com, a website created by ATA and Fitzgibbons specifically to combat section 220, stated that section 220 "may be the biggest threat to free speech ever".

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