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When I posed a question to my readers on March 31 — Should the government regulate Net neutrality? — I was surprised to see how many readers opposed Net neutrality regulation. In the Your Take Roundup the following week, I even headlined it, “People Wary of Government in Net Neutrality Debate.”

Now word is spreading through the blogosphere that some of these commenters on my blog and many others might be making a concerted “fake grassroots” (a.k.a. astroturf) campaign in support of the telecommunications companies who oppose Net neutrality legislation.

If you’re new to the debate, the telecom companies say they have the right to charge heavy users of the Internet — Amazon, Google, YouTube, etc. — a higher fee for the traffic they use. On the other side, people are worried that this loss of Net neutrality will end up creating a two-tiered Internet with haves and have nots.

If you’re new to the idea of astroturf campaigns, many political causes and candidates have created fake grassroots campaigns, with various people writing the same letters to the editor or posting the same type of comments on blogs under different names. The latter is also known as using “sock puppets,” and Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik was recently suspended when bloggers figured out he was posting comments on blogs under various pseudonyms.

So let’s look at what’s happening here with Net neutrality, and perhaps working together, we can get to the bottom of this. On MediaShift, I had people posting under the names: Paulaner01, pkp646, lessgov and oldhats.

Timothy Karr, who blogs at Media Citizen and is campaign director for Free Press, has been posting comments to various blogs calling out these posters. Here’s part of what he wrote on MediaShift:

Readers of this comment thread should know that Paulaner01, lessgov and pkp646 look to be part of a tag-team of industry shills who invade blog comments on Net neutrality to argue against any government regulation of the Internet. Other names who run with this crowd are John Rice, AJ Carey and oldhats. (Google any of these names in combination and you’ll see how their game works).

By tag-teaming the blogs this small handful of individuals gives the false impression of broad popular support for an industry-friendly position. What they fail to point out is that Net neutrality has been the rule that has governed access to the Internet since its inception. It’s the reason that the Internet has become such a dynamic force for new ideas, economic innovation and free speech. What they really want is for Congress to radically re-write our telecommunications laws so that companies like AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth can swoop in and become gatekeepers to Internet content — in a way that benefits no one except the largest ISPs.

I’d like these people to tell us how it is that they appear together (usually one after the other) spouting identical industry talking points across the blogosphere. What gives fellas? Are you being paid? And by whom?

For some reason, Karr posted this on MediaShift and various other blogs under the pseudonym “sagecast.” If you’re going to call out people for using sock puppets, it’s not such a good idea to use them yourself. Anyway, Karr did later admit that he had posted using the name sagecast, giving more details in a comment on the IP & Democracy blog.

Cynthia Brumfield, who is a co-writer of the IP & Democracy blog, brings up some good points about the possible sock puppet campaign in her post.

“Is this kind of coordinated commenting wrong?” she asks. “The answer has to be no, if the coordination is simply like-minded individuals who get roused by the same posts, all know each other and are compulsive writers. On the other hand, if these are paid industry representatives, they have every moral obligation to state that fact when posting comments so that we all at least know which side their bread is buttered on…What I find unseemly is the prospect that these commenters are paid by the cable and phone companies to make these comments and aren’t disclosing it.”

Karr wrote on the IP & Democracy blog that these apparent astroturf postings were an echo of a campaign by Verizon in New Jersey to get bloggers to support legislation it wanted in order to open up cable lines to their service.

So what happens next? I’ve put in an email query to Karr, as well as all the blog commenters in question, who did include email addresses with their comments (though I’m not sure if they’re valid). I’ve also queried Verizon public relations, and hope to hear back from them, and will get in touch with AT&T representatives.

Due to technical issues with MediaShift, I can’t trace the IP addresses of the people who posted here, but I hope that some of the other bloggers who have had comments from these people can see if their IP addresses are the same (meaning it could be from one person posing as many people). For the name Paulaner01 alone, a Google search brings up 679 pages of comments on blogs and news sites, mainly about telecom legislative issues.

Who are these people (or person), and are they being paid? And why would they post anonymously with the same few pseudonyms over and over again? Please post your own findings and clues in the comments below, and I’ll update this post with any updates or news I have. You can also send tips to me directly through the Feedback form on MediaShift.

[Sock puppet photo by Amy van der Hiel]