The Freedom to Innovate Network - an 'Astroturf' Organisation Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Freedom to Innovate Network - an 'Astroturf' Organisation

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Modern politics is often dominated by single-issue groups and parties, as recently seen in the UK with the fuel protests. This is seen by many as a counter to the power which big business wields, often overriding elected governments

Needless to say, big businesses are well aware of this and have tried on several occasions to use the same technique for their own ends.

Prominent examples include the fake 'citizens campaigns' run by Tobacco firms in the US (entirely funded by the industry and mostly made up of those employed in or financed by the industry). Tobacco companies are particularly loathsome when it comes to promotion: take, for example, the Joe Camel cartoons, obviously aimed at younger people and satirised as 'Joe Chemo' (complete with drip) and as Mr Butts in the Doonesbury strip.

These groups claim to be grass-roots, but this is so blatantly false that they have become known as Astroturf organisations, after the famous brand of fake grass used on all-weather pitches.

The Freedom to Innovate Network

A more recent and (to most computer users) familiar example of an Astroturf organisation is the Freedom to Innovate Network (FIN), which was set up in the late 1990s as a response to moves by the US Department of Justice to restrict alleged abuses of monopoly powers by Microsoft. The FIN billed itself as 'a non-partisan, grass-roots network of citizens and businesses'1 opposed to the Department's action.

Non-partisan requires some qualification in this case: it was non-partisan in the sense of being wholly funded by Microsoft, who also provided the web space under the domain, which is perhaps not entirely as some of us might understand the word.

Grass-roots also needs careful interpretation, as founder members included the Dell Computer Corporation, long-term beneficiaries of Microsoft's licensing strategy which saw IBM charged significantly more per license than Dell because IBM refused to stop offering their PCs with non-Microsoft operating systems. IBM were also only given crucial test releases of Windows 95 15 minutes before its retail release, while Dell and others had been testing the product for many weeks beforehand. A classic Astroturf group, in other words.

The bit about 'citizens and businesses' is sufficiently wide to be uncontentious, although Microsoft was then, and still is, one of the most unpopular companies in the computer industry. They were accused of using predatory pricing, bundling deals and other practices to grab market share from all and sundry, including those with whom they were supposedly co-operating. At the trial only one of its hundreds of partner organisations would actually stand up and testify on Microsoft's behalf - the Visio corporation. It later transpired that they were in merger talks, and Microsoft bought them a few months later.

The choice of name was also contentious. Innovation is at the heart of the computer industry - and the whole premise of the case (subsequently proven in court and upheld at appeal) was precisely that Microsoft were damaging innovation by using monopolistic practices.


There's a myth that American don't do irony. Astroturf organisations such as the Freedom to Innovate Network conclusively prove that they do.

1Quoted from Time Magazine, 15 November, 1999 Volume 154 No 19.

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