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Craigslist founder criticizes telecoms for 'artificial' Net neutrality debate

Online classifieds site founder Craig Newmark would like to see more transparency in Washington, D.C., from politicians and telecommunications companies.

WASHINGTON--For someone not interested in politics, founder Craig Newmark spends quite a bit of time these days working with people in Washington.

"Most people, including myself, don't want to be bothered with politics," Newmark said Friday at Google's Washington, D.C., headquarters. "They just want to call 311 to get a pothole fixed."

Yet as a proponent for policy ideas like Net neutrality and government transparency, Newmark has found himself an unlikely advocate for career lobbyists--just the good kind, though.

Google Communications Director Adam Kovacevich interviewed Craigslist founder Craig Newmark at Google's D.C. office on Friday. Stephanie Condon/CNET

While lawmakers should embrace the online tools to make democracy more widespread, he said, industries like telecommunications have to play their part by steering away from deceitful lobbying practices.

"There are some bad actors in the lobbying business, but the vast majority are just people trying to get a fair shake for their clients in the sausage factory," said Newmark, who belongs to boards for groups like the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for government transparency.

However, he said industries like telecom, finance, and oil often resort to using "unsavory" lobbying tactics such as fake grassroots--or "Astroturf"--campaigns. Some of those groups have taken aim at Google on issues like Net neutrality.

Newmark said the telecom industry's use of Astroturf groups creates an "artificial" conflict.

"Regarding telecoms, the first thing to do is listen to your employees," he said. "I work with abuse handling departments, and they're all for Net neutrality."

Newmark, who is part of an advisory committee for Barack Obama, criticized John McCain for bringing into his campaign people with questionable lobbying practices, such as campaign manager Rick Davis.

"I take a look at the Barack Obama campaign for warning signs as well," he said, but he associates with the candidate "with a clean conscience."

To be sure, the Obama campaign has its share of questionable lobbyist affiliations. Obama for a short time had former Fannie Mae CEO James Johnson leading his vice presidential search, and he is one of the largest recipients of donations from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Nevertheless, Newmark cited the Obama campaign's online organization as evidence that "now we have the beginnings of the technology to actually get serious about participatory democracy. This is like 1776 all over again."

Politicians can better utilize online resources like Twitter and direct e-mail communication with constituents, Newmark said, as well as letting authenticated citizens moderate online message boards.

"People can work together to push up the comments of people saying smart, good things," he said.

Citizen empowerment requires more transparency from the government, however, and Newmark chided the Senate for not passing the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, which would require the Senate to disclose its campaign financing online, something the House of Representatives already does.

Senators Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.) have suspended the bill, which Newmark said was unnecessary.

"It looks like they're protecting someone or they're hiding something," he said.