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TV & Radio

May 5, 2009

Sunrise, Cisco and the "Internet is full" astroturfing campaign

The Internet is full. Or so Channel Seven's Sunrise informed their viewers. And in doing so, Sunrise has been badly duped.

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As reported in the Week in Geek column, Sunrise recently reported that the Internet is nearly full. Besides the hilarity in watching David Koch describe the Internet as consisting of a series of tubes (channelling Ted Stevens), Pete Blasina explained that he was surprised that the Internet hadn’t run out of capacity already, that the Internet was 13 years old (it isn’t), and that the switches on the Internet are the critical consideration.

Old hats in technology reporting know that stories about the Internet running out of capacity are nearly as old as the Internet itself (well, Blasina’s Internet back to 1996). Here’s a few old links:

The story is nearly always the same: telcos and infrastructure companies fund research that finds that the latest trend online at the time (audio, video, HD video, P2P, Sykpe and social networking are some previously used) is too much for the Internet to handle. The reasons behind the studies are usually variations on a theme: Government regulation or Government financial support. Which is where we start our story on how Sunrise played a role in the latest outbreak of industry astroturfing.

The study quoted by Blasina on Sunrise is based on research by Nemertes Research, a Monkena, Illinois firm that specialises in “analysing and quantifying the business value of emerging technologies”. Nemertes is a commercial operation, and does not fund research out of the goodness of its heart. Instead, it does so exclusively for corporations. But unlike some research firms who are focused on one-offs, Nemertes according to their website “typically work with clients on an annual retainer basis”.

And one of those clients is the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA).

The IIA is not attributed in the most recently released Nemertes research (2008 report), indeed no sponsoring party in mentioned in the research. However, this report was a follow up to a nearly identical report released by Nemertes in 2007 (this earlier report is referenced at the beginning of the 2008 report.)

That report was sponsored by the IIA, in what Timothy Karr referred to in The Huffington Post as “Suckered by Astroturf”. Notably, the IIA put out a press release on the same day Nemertes released the 2008 report which quoted the contents extensively.

But who is the IIA? The IIA is an “astroturf” group underwritten by AT&T that also includes among its members other leading infrastructure providers including Nortel, Alcatel Lucent, and others. The lead policy item on their website reads “IIA is calling for a national broadband strategy” (not to be confused with the Australian NBN.) In the American context, that could mean money or regulatory support from the US Government, or both.

But how did a primarily American focused astroturfing campaign end up be served to Australians on breakfast television?

The outbreak of “Internet is full” stories this time was remarkably subdued. The last research paper was released in November 2008, which might account for part of the silence, although Sunrise says there’s a new report coming (the contents year to year ultimately deliver nearly the same doom and gloom message.) Given strong coverage of the 2007 outbreak as being an astroturfing campaign, news rooms may have been a little wiser this time round.

That didn’t stop The Courier Mail running an extract, and linking to a story at The Times. John Harlow at The Times takes the hook in full, and even goes as far as interviewing a Nermertes analyst without once disclosing that the information he was using in his article was funded in full by the industry.

But Blasina didn’t quote from The Times, who primarily took a UK view. Blasina had been briefed on the basics, and the who comes directly from Blasina, when in a Freudian slip he responds to a question on how the problem may be fixed by saying “we … we are putting … sorry … there are companies, for example Cisco”. (At the 3:39 minute mark of the video).

There’s also an earlier reference to “we need a huge investment” to make sure the worst case doesn’t happen, and the weird focus on switches. The focus on switches is strange on two counts: it doesn’t match the otherwise dumbed down explanations in the piece, and references to switches in the previous studies are made, but not in the introduction. Given Blasina can’t even accurately describe when the Internet was founded, I’d doubt very much that he read the whole study. Could the focus on switches have been delivered by one the largest suppliers of Internet “switches”, Cisco?

Cisco isn’t a member of the IIA, but is a major supplier to AT&T, and would benefit greatly from any increase broadband capacity, both in the United States, and Australia, where Cisco is among other things, a Telstra partner.

Cisco has products featured on the Kochie’s Business Builders Program, and is also a program sponsor through the Cisco Small Business competition. Blasina also reports for the same program, and on at least one occasion, interviewed Cisco, if that’s the right word.

On another occasion, Business Builders also ran a piece on ZyNet, a company that proudly notes in this article their key relationship with Cisco. On the Kochie’s Business Builders site, the same story includes the reference “Paul also explains how Cisco helped them to achieve this”.

Blasina also appears to have a direct connection with Cisco, with Cisco seemingly sponsoring giveaways on his GadgetGuy website.

If you’re looking for a good rebuttal to the core ideas in this research, The Economist (as respectable as they come) as a well written counter argument here.

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