Organization Trends

Net Neutrality’s Dark Funders

If you believe many on the Left, online freedom as we know it is about to end—again.

Last week, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals heard a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s 2018 repeal of net neutrality, a regulation created in 2015 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the Obama administration. Accompanying it is the usual hue and cry from the Left.

“The repeal of net neutrality is nothing but a massive government handout to some of the most unscrupulous, and least popular, corporations in the United States,” claimed Evan Greer, deputy director of the pro-net neutrality group Fight for the Future, which receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual grants from groups like the Ford Foundation, Proteus Fund, and Wallace Global Fund.

Greer is prone to hyperbole (he has also tweeted that “capitalism + healthcare = hellscape”), but he’s in line with the mainstream Left’s consensus that repealing net neutrality would make the Internet “pay-to-play” and—as the Seattle Times editorial board put it—“Orwellian.” As Senate Democratic leadership inanely tweeted last year, “If we don’t save net neutrality, you’ll get the Internet one word at a time.”

In reality, net neutrality was dreamed up by neo-Marxists who believe Big Government can manage the Internet better than the private Internet service providers who have run it since 1989. It’s well-documented that the scheme was advanced by avowed socialist and authoritarian Robert McChesney, the former editor of the socialist magazine Monthly Review, who believes that “any serious effort to reform the media system would have to necessarily be part of a revolutionary program to overthrow the capitalist political economy.” McChesney’s group, Free Press, was cited by the Obama administration 46 times in its arguments for pushing net neutrality in 2015.

But Free Press had a close ally in that campaign: Demand Progress, a group that says it wants to “protect the democratic character of the Internet.” But to Demand Progress, protecting the Internet apparently means handing it over to the federal government; during the effort to enact net neutrality regulations in 2014, Demand Progress members drove 700,000 comments and 300,000 phone calls to the FCC.

The group also aims to “eliminate the corrupting influence of big money in politics.” So far, that’s par for the course among left-wing activists—except that Demand Progress is a self-described “fiscally-sponsored project of Sixteen Thirty Fund,” one of the Left’s largest “dark money” mega-funders.

The Sixteen Thirty Fund is a 501(c)(4) advocacy organization, meaning it can spend more money on lobbying the government than its 501(c)(3) counterparts. The Sixteen Thirty Fund reported revenues of $21.2 million in 2016, but the media often fails to report on its sponsorship of activist groups like Demand Progress. It’s a cozy arrangement; in 2016, Demand Progress paid the Fund $694,292 in “financial assistance” and gave another $172,946 to the New Venture Fund, a “sister” affiliate of the Sixteen Thirty Fund which reported an eye-popping $363.7 million in 2016 revenues.

Among Demand Progress’s list of funders is the Media Democracy Fund (MDF), which gave the group’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit arm $90,000 in 2017. MDF runs an “Open Internet Defense Fund,” through which it supports Internet control groups like Free Press, Fight for the Future, and Demand Progress. But you won’t find tax filings for MDF online because the group is a project of the New Venture Fund, not an IRS-registered nonprofit. Neither is MDF’s “action arm,” the Media Democracy Action Fund—which itself is a project of the Sixteen Thirty Fund.

It’s easy to call for Internet “transparency” from the shadows and castigate “money-in-politics,” but with revenues exceeding $363 million, Americans may wonder who stands to gain from net neutrality. Unfortunately, liberal journalists don’t bother to tell the other half of the story.

Take Slate, a left-leaning website which in 2015 praised “the women who won net neutrality” but failed to report their myriad connections to the professional Left. Among the heroines were MDF founder Helen Brunner; Yolanda Hippensteele, an MDF officer and former outreach director for Free Press; and MDF executive director Amber French, who previously worked as an officer for the Proteus Fund, which funds Free Press. (Proteus actually created MDF in 2006 and transferred control to the New Venture Fund at a later date—startup funding came from a bevy of left-wing foundations, including the Ford, Park, Arca, and Open Society Foundations.)

The MDF team was aided by Jennifer Calloway, now-former vice president of Spitfire Strategies, a D.C.-based consultancy whose founder and president—Kristen Grimm—is a board member for the Windward Fund, yet another “sister” affiliate of the New Venture Fund and Sixteen Thirty Fund. New Venture Fund paid Spitfire Strategies $405,153 for “public and media relations” services in 2013. The firm is also listed as the media contact for Fight for the Future in a pro-net neutrality press release.

Far from being a “groundswell” of support from everyday Americans, the campaign to pass—and now preserve—net neutrality was always the work of activists on the professional Left. The irony, of course, is that these groups wage war for a socialist idea with hundreds of millions of dollars in support from foundations built by capitalists.

Hayden Ludwig

Hayden Ludwig is the Director of Policy Research at Restoration of America. He was formerly Senior Investigative Researcher at Capital Research Center. Ludwig is a native of Orange County, California,…
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