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Corn farmers take anti-Google fight to Washington

A secretive lobby group with ties to cable operators may be behind an anti-Google letter to Congress signed by the American Corn Growers Association and others.

If you think there's something a little odd about a bunch of corn farmers lobbying Congress to hold hearings on the details of a Google-Yahoo advertising deal, you may be right.

A letter (PDF) that the American Corn Growers Association and other farmers' groups sent to the U.S. Congress on Monday appears to be linked to a Washington, D.C., lobby group that does work for cable providers, some of Google's most potent political adversaries.

The letter warned Senate and House committee chairmen that any such deal would "create a monopolistic concentration of power in the market for online search and related advertising."

Excerpt from PDF of anti-Google letter signed by a corn farmers' group. The author's name is the same as a staffer for a secretive D.C. lobby shop used by Google's adversaries.

An examination of the metadata in the PDF version of the letter shows that the author was Alexandra Esser. That's the name of a staffer at a secretive Washington, D.C., lobby organization called the LawMedia Group, which currently counts the National Cable and Telecommunications Association as a client and counted AT&T as one in the past.

The LawMedia Group was founded by Julian Epstein, a former high-ranking House Democratic aide who The Washington Post once called a "dashing bachelor, a hip-hop aficionado who drives a soft-top Jeep Sahara and lives in an Adams-Morgan loft he designed himself." LMG once described itself as providing "grassroots lobbying" and "issue/initiative" management; among its hires is Jason Oxman, a former vice president at Comptel, which counts Sprint and Time Warner Telecom as members.

In the technology-meets-politics world, Net neutrality has been the hottest political conflict pitting businesses against each other in the last few years (the conflagration really started with the 2005 Madison River case). After Google emerged as a leader of the pro-Net neutrality forces, it was inevitable that its adversaries would employ the political process to trip it up in unrelated business dealings (c.f. Rep. Joe Barton).

Washington types seem to want to distance themselves from LMG. AT&T acknowledged through a representative that it once retained LMG but adds "the new AT&T is not a client." A Comcast representative said "it isn't being done on our behalf." A National Cable and Telecommunications Association representative said that "LMG is one of the many consultants that we work with, and I'm sure they work with many others, but we are not involved in this issue at all." LMG's Esser did not reply to phone or e-mail messages on Tuesday. Google declined to comment.

Corn farmers (and more) political time line

March 2008: Latino IT group sides with Comcast on Net neutrality

May 2008 (PDF): Latino groups ask Justice Department to investigate Google's "search monopoly." Also see press release (PDF).

June 2008: Latino IT group says it has "serious concerns" about a Google-Yahoo advertising deal

June 2008 (PDF): Corn growers ask Congress to investigate Google

LMG appears to be unusually tight-lipped about itself and what it does: its Web site requires a password even to click on the "contact LMG" link. A non-password protected version of the site saved by offers to sell the ability to form "robust coalitions (that) can change minds--in the media, among lawmakers." Another page says "it is our longstanding policy not to disclose our client list."

Larry Mitchell, director of legislative affairs for the American Corn Growers Association, said in a telephone interview on Monday that farmers genuinely are interested in Congress holding hearings about the antitrust implications of a potential Google-Yahoo ad partnership.

"It's not unusual for farmers to look at technology," Mitchell said. Markets today "are very very concentrated. In fact all of us, in our day-to-day lives, are dealing with fewer companies and less and less competition, and we feel that's detrimental to a free enterprise system."

Mitchell said in response to a question that no outside groups were involved in the preparation of the letter to Congress.

One person who has been involved with creating fake coalitions said it was trivial to organize letters to politicians. "You go down the Latino people, the deaf people, the farmers, and choose them," said the person, who requested anonymity. "You say, 'I can't use this one--I already used them last time...' We had their letterhead. We'd just write the letter. We'd fax it to them and tell them, 'You're in favor of this.'"

Anti-Google politicking: First farmers, then Latino groups
In what could be a coincidence, three hours after the corn growers forwarded their anti-Google letter to journalists on Monday, the Latinos in Information Sciences and Technology Association (LISTA) followed up by circulating its own.

LISTA is a political ally of cable operators. LISTA supported them last year before the Federal Communications Commission; it supported them in a tussle over set-top boxes; it supported them in a digital TV coalition.

In March, LISTA sided with Comcast in opposing Net neutrality laws. LISTA President Jose Marquez has warned that for "Latinos working in the information and telecommunications sector, the chill (of) new burdensome regulations placed on investment will kill jobs and opportunity."

The letter that LISTA sent on Monday posed five questions to Google CEO Eric Schmidt. An excerpt: "Google has in the past been accused of using its search algorithms to favor certain search results over others. Such accusations are of particular concern to Hispanic-owned small businesses that rely on Internet search for a competitive equalizer in a marketplace dominated by large corporations."

That's not all. The American Corn Growers Association (along with the American Agriculture Movement, a "farmer-created, farmer-built organization") signed another anti-Google letter (PDF) on May 9. It was sent to the U.S. Department of Justice and alleged that "Google's Gmail service has already repeatedly violated basic tenets of consumer privacy by scanning the actual text of individual customer e-mails in order to extract information for its advertising."

Another explanation is that the corn growers group, which is not the same as the National Corn Growers Association, simply believes in aggressive antitrust enforcement. It filed a private antitrust suit against Monsanto, for instance, last year. It has been involved in other policy debates before the FCC, and not always on the side of the cable companies.

Normally trade associations and nonprofit groups that engage in Washington politicking are eager to post their correspondence on their Web sites. (It makes them look busy, or at least like they're accomplishing something.) That's what groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Competitive Enterprise Institute do.

But the corn growers do not; the only press releases listed discuss renewable energy and corn prices. Likewise, LISTA's letter from Monday does not appear on the group's Web site.

Similarly, there appears to be no mention of the Google-Yahoo letter on the Web sites of the National Association of Farmer Elected Committees, the American Agriculture Movement, the League of Rural Voters, the National Latino Farmers & Ranchers Trade Association, or the National Family Farm Coalition. All of those groups (plus the corn farmers) signed Monday's letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).

Surreptitious attempts by companies to influence the political process through front groups have a long, if not especially distinguished, history.

Astroturf campaigns in Washington have involved a Working Families for Wal-Mart (funded by Wal-Mart Stores) and the Save Our Species Alliance (funded by the timber industry). Comcast's hiring of people who showed up at a Net neutrality hearing and apparently applauded on cue may fit into that category too.

If there indeed is a broadband provider behind this flurry of farming-and-ranching outrage, an acute irony exists. The cable companies and the telecoms have the better of the Net neutrality arguments; technologists are now realizing that Google and its brethren backed legislation that would give far too much power to the FCC and do more harm than good. But hoping that proposals in Congress can be debated on their merits might be too much to ask.

[Update: 6/12 9:20 a.m.: We've posted a followup with LMG's response.]

Disclosure: Declan McCullagh is married to a Google employee.