By Hazel Trice Edney, Trice Edney Wire
Formed just months ago, The Makers and Merchants Coalition has been an outspoken opponent of legislation that seeks to crack down on stolen and counterfeit goods sold on online marketplaces. But in its zeal to stop the legislation, it appears to have gone too far in its claims.
Funded by the Internet Association, a lobbying group representing tech giants like Facebook in Silicon Valley and Amazon in Washington state, The Makers and Merchants Coalition has boasted having support from a number of groups as it seeks to defeat the INFORM Consumers Act, chief among them the well-known U. S. Black Chamber, Inc. (USBC). The problem, however, is that the USBC president says he knows nothing about the group.
“I’ve never heard of them; never even talked to them,” Ron Busby told the Trice Edney News Wire.
The INFORM Consumers Act is intended to protect consumers by combatting “the online sale of stolen, counterfeit, and dangerous consumer products,” according to the website of Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who introduced the legislation along with Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla). She is chair of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Bilirakis is ranking member.
The Makers and Merchants Coalition apparently made its claims about the USBC on its website. For example, a screenshot from the group’s website shows the U. S. Black Chambers Inc. listed under a Makers and Merchants Coalition statement that says, “Across the country, small businesses, individual sellers, and organizations that support them are all standing up to Big Retail to fight back against the INFORM Act, a bill that threatens the privacy, safety, and livelihood of millions of American entrepreneurs. See below for a list of organizations that reject this legislation, as well as links to opposition letters.” The USBC is listed, but with no link to any letter.
Why exactly the Makers and Merchants Coalition has claimed partnership with the USBC – including statements on its website – has become something of a mystery in D.C. where the political leadership relies on any number of groups to advance their policy agenda before lawmakers and regulators. The group did not respond to an email inquiring about its use of the USBC.
To be sure, backing from USBC is valuable currency in any fight over legislation here in Washington, DC. Founded by Busby, the organization boasts approximately 108 chambers in 22 states and at least 240,000 members – mostly Black-owned businesses. It describes its five pillars of service as being access to capital, entrepreneur training, chamber development, advocacy and contracting.
In an interesting twist, the Makers and Merchants Coalition apparently deleted references to the USBC on its site after word circulated that the USBC may not be as close to this group as the group would have people believe. The Makers and Merchants Coalition is not the only group whose campaign tactics are raising questions. A group calling itself The Stop INFORM Act Coalition recently sent an email to lawmakers in Washington state claiming it had the support of USBC. Not only does that claim appear to be questionable. But the group could not be found in a simple internet search, raising questions about its origins and backers.
“We urge you to stop the INFORM Act (HB 1543), a discriminatory bill that violates the rights of small and minority-owned businesses, criminalizes small and minority-owned businesses who are simply trying to make an honest living, and creates barriers to access and equity, much like the Voter ID and Voter Suppression bills that seek to impose significant burdens on minority voters trying to exercise their most fundamental civil right,” said the note in the email, signed by the Stop INFORM Act Coalition. It was sent to lawmakers and leaked to the Trice Edney News Wire. The email continues, “That’s why the INFORM Act is officially opposed by the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; the US Black Chambers, Inc; the National Association for Women’s Business Owners; the National Asian/Pacific Islander American Chamber of Commerce; the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council; the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce; and Women Impacting Public Policy.”
In an interview, Busby also said he was unfamiliar with The Stop INFORM Act Coalition. He added that while he has concerns about the INFORM Act, his organization has not taken a position supporting or opposing the legislation. Busby said, “After reviewing the legislation, we joined with a number of other organizations to raise concerns with some elements of the original legislation and we are pleased to see our voice has been heard.” He did not elaborate.