Astroturf

by Henry on September 30, 2003

Via “BoingBoing”:http://boingboing.net/2003_09_01_archive.html#106487652773758854, an interesting story about the new Transport and Security Administration (TSA). CAPPS II program, which aims to hoover up personal data from all airline passengers. The TSA has appointed a certain David S. Stempler, head of the “Air Travelers Association,”:http://www.1800airsafe.com/ as passenger advocate in the CAPPS II process. The trouble is that there’s no evidence that the “Air Travelers Association” consists of more than a fancy website, a customer loyalty program, a couple of flacks, and a bunch of letterheaded stationary. Moreover, there’s strong circumstantial evidence “to suggest”:http://www.dontspyon.us/stempler.html that the “Air Travelers’ Association” has close and intimate connections with Cendant Corporation, a data processing company that stands to make a lot of money if CAPPS II is implemented. In other words, it looks as though the “passenger advocate” may well be a corporate shill.

This is a perennial problem for interest group politics in the US. It’s very hard to tell “real” grassroots organizations from fake ones; private interests often set up astroturf associations to peddle a particular line and pretend that it’s emanating from a real constituency. Even when the US government wants to know who’s for real and who’s not (doubtful in the present instance), it’s hard put to distinguish the genuine from the ersatz. Many European countries do things differently; they give quasi-official status, and a privileged voice, to interest associations that they consider to be “genuine.” This has its own problems – it often gives rise to worryingly comfortable relations between governments and consumer watchdogs. But it’s still an improvement on the US approach.

Recently, however, US consumer groups have begun to organize – thanks to the EU. The EU and US set up a cross-Atlantic organization called the “Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue”:http://www.tabd.org a few years back, to push the common interests of EU and US business. The Europeans insisted that there be a similar organization for consumer associations too, the “Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue”:http://www.tacd.org, or TACD. Since its inception, TACD has not only represented EU-US consumer interests, but has served as an umbrella group to organize US consumer groups into a quasi-official lobby. Amazingly, nothing of the sort existed before (many US consumer associations had fallen out over NAFTA, and weren’t talking to each other). TACD also serves as a sort of vetting procedure for genuine consumer associations – if you’re a member of TACD, you’re undoubtedly the real thing. That said, it’s not surprising that the TSA didn’t invite a “real” consumer organization to provide an advocate. If you want to provide the appearance of consultation, but not the reality, astroturf groups have their advantages.

{ 1 comment }

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William Sjostrom 09.30.03 at 3:21 pm

But look at the groups that are members, heavily Naderite. I’ve driven Corvairs, and really like them, so they are opposed to my consumer interests. The first underlying difficulty is that so long as consumers are heterogeneous, it is not clear that there is a single “consumer” position. The second difficulty is that to the extent consumer groups are a response to the diverse interests of consumers, then consumers are unlikely to be represented, as distinct from particular groups of consumers with interests that may differ quite substantially from unrepresented consumers.

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