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The Shady Ethics of ‘The Obama Phone’

The Shady Ethics of ‘The Obama Phone’ September 28, 2012

UPDATE: The story gets even weirder.  See the update below.

By now, most of my readers will have seen the infamous YouTube video of an Obama supporter explaining that all minorities should vote for President Obama because he gives out free phones:

The story has taken several turns.

Surely this woman is deceived, right?  Surely — surely — Barack Obama is not in the business of giving out cell phones in exchange for a vote.  Right?

As it turns out, there is a government assistance program to provide low-income individuals with landlines or with cell phones.

So, surely this is another example of Barack Obama purchasing the favor of special interest groups with government largesse, right?  Barack’s big-government, redistributionist policies run amok?

That’s not quite right either.  It was long felt that universal access should be the goal of telecommunications, so that all people would have access to phones in case of emergency and so that existing customers could reach all people.  Liberal website ThinkProgress says, “The idea of providing low-income individuals with subsidized phone service was originated in the Reagan administration following the break-up of AT&T in 1984. (It was expanded and formalized by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.) The program is paid for by telecommunications companies through an independent non-profit, not through tax revenue.”

So, the conservative response to the “Obama phone” is just example of conservative stupidity, right?  Obama has nothing to do with the program, and it’s not supported by taxpayers, right?

Well, no, again it’s not that simple.  For one thing, ThinkProgress supports its reference to Reagan with a link to FactCheck.org, which does not reference Reagan at all.  ThinkProgress seems to be reaching hard to associate the Lifeline phone service program with Reagan, when it actually began in 1996 under a law signed by Clinton (isn’t it interesting how ThinkProgress leaves out his name?).  For another thing, the government forces phone providers to pay a fee in support of the Lifeline program, and phone service providers in turn force their American customers – taxpayers – to pay a fee.  It’s not unreasonable to call this a tax, even if it’s a tax that’s trying to avoid being called a tax.

But the really interesting question is: Who has been marketing this as the “Obama Phone”?

First, let’s step back.  Having a program to ensure that welfare recipients have at least minimal phone service is not necessarily a bad idea.  We can all imagine emergency situations where phone access would be critical, whether it’s because the individual needs to reach emergency services or because a local government or law enforcement needs to reach the individual.  And expanding the program to cell phones is, likewise, not necessarily a bad idea.  It’s arguably cheaper, since there is no installation charge.

Where I have questions is with the marketing of the free cell phones as “Obama phones.”  Imagine, for instance, that it were the government itself that advertised the phones as Obama phones, starting in 2009.  This would be, at the very least, deeply misleading.  It would be taking credit for a program begun under predecessors.  It would be similar to President Bush in his first term, if he had come to office after Clinton initiated a program that gave free cars to welfare recipients, seeking electoral advantage by advertising them as “Bush cars.”

But clearly (?) that’s not the case here, right?  A visit to FreeGovernmentCellPhones.net — which calls itself “a small publishing company and the authority on the U.S. government’s Lifeline Assistance program as it applies to mobile phones” — decries the “false rumor” of Obama Phones, which it calls an “incorrect term” because the cell phone program began several months before Obama’s election.  Case closed.

Or maybe not.  Visit ObamaPhone.net and here’s what you see (I suspect they’ll make changes soon, if they haven’t already, so I wanted to take a screenshot):

It begins: “What exactly is the free Obama phone? The free OBama phone is a program that is meant to help the financially unstable who cannot afford access to a cell phone…”

When you click the link at ObamaPhone.net to apply for a free cell phone, you’re redirected to…wait for it…FreeGovernmentCellPhones.net.  That’s right.  The same website that decried the “false rumor” and “incorrect term” of The Obama Phone Program has another website, surely desired to attract search engine traffic, that advertises The Obama Phone Program.  Nice.

UPDATE: The website has already been changed!  Visit Obamaphone.net now, and you’ll get something like a blog with no pictures of Obama, as though they’re in the process of dismantling the site.  But surely there’s nothing to see here, folks!  Let’s talk about Mitt Romney’s tax forms!

So then we reach the question: Who funds the companies like FreeGovernmentCellPhones.net and ObamaPhone.net?  Did they begin calling it “the Obama Phone” before or after the rumors of Obama phones began to spread through email?  Do they have a profit-share arrangement with the wireless telecoms that receive money (albeit indirectly) from the government to distribute free cell phones?  Are they paid by the federal government to help spread the word about the free cell phone service program?

These websites are hard to penetrate, so I don’t know the answer, but it’s a juicy question: Is the Obama administration effectively paying a company to advertise the free cell phones as Obama Phones?  Or was the administration aware of the practice, and have they done anything to stop it?  I’m sure the mainstream media are hard on the case, investigating the Obama administration in that relentless way they do.

You can learn more about the program — which, if not begun by President Obama, seems to have grown bloated in his term — from Rep Tim Griffin’s video:

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