- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A conservative, pro-market shareholder activist group is claiming a split in its drive to fend off what it sees as left-wing pressure on two of the biggest names on the Internet.

The Washington-based National Center for Public Policy Research hailed a pledge made by executives at Groupon Inc. at last week’s shareholder meeting in Chicago to be “content-neutral” when deciding on the deals it offers members. Center officials said they pushed Groupon to make the pledge upon learning that the animal rights group PETA next year was going to seek a ban on membership deals for circuses and zoos.

“We got the company on record to no longer make decisions based on political whim,” said Justin Danhof, who heads the National Center’s Free Enterprise Project. “It’s a big victory for the free market, and it’s a big victory for Groupon.”

But the activist group did not get the same satisfaction two days later when Amazon.com shareholders met in Seattle, as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos refused to make the same content-neutral pledge, in part because of press reports the company was being pressured to drops its corporate relationship with the Boy Scouts over the group’s policy on gays.

“These are issues that are complicated, and we’ll continue to look at them,” Mr. Bezos told shareholders.

The cross-currents from the political left and right illustrate the difficult course major corporations have to tread, especially Web-based enterprises like Amazon and Groupon that operate across a wide variety of national and even global markets. Companies as varied as Chick-fil-A and Mozilla Firefox have been targeted for their stands on gay marriage, while Groupon pulled its ads running on the website for the reality show “The Apprentice” after some customers complained about the “birther” comments of star Donald Trump.

Mr. Danhof accused Groupon of a “knee-jerk reaction” when it removed deals for firearms in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings. Some deals were restored in specific markets in the following months where requests for such deals were high.

PETA officials defend their shareholder activism, saying it is a way to make sure Groupon is supporting causes or products that violate the law.

“PETA is simply asking Groupon to stop promoting companies that abuse and neglect animals,” PETA Foundation Deputy General Counsel Delcianna Winders said. “For starters, Groupon could stick to its own policy of not promoting animal exhibitors that have violated the Animal Welfare Act in the past two years. Since it isn’t, it’s lying to customers, which is why PETA has just filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint regarding the company.”

But NCPPR Chairwoman Amy Ridenour said she believes that leftist organizations, such as PETA, are trying to bully organizations, such as Groupon and Amazon, into changing their product offerings to favor one side in the political debate.

“What we’re standing for is that this shouldn’t become something, that [businesses] enlist in the battles of the left,” she said. “Let the public decide. We do not believe that corporations should be enlisted in support of left-wing causes. If there are going to be laws against the dolphins jumping, let the legislators decide.”

Groupon offers a marketplace of deals for food and drink, events, and shopping, among other categories. More than 650,000 merchants have been featured on the site as of December 2013, and the company’s gross billings increased 29 percent over the last year.

“If Groupon comes out and makes an announcement that sends a message to many people, especially young people, that there’s something wrong with circuses and Sea World, they may believe that,” Ms. Ridenour said. “They’re sending a message of political correctness [and] propaganda.”

NCPPR officials say they are not trying to force corporations to adopt conservative causes, but are calling on corporate executives to make decisions following only what Ms. Ridenour says are “the dictates of the marketplace.”

Groupon’s content-neutral pledge means “they’re not letting political groups determine their services,” she said.

“We want the politics out of it. Let business do what business does best.”

• Kristen East can be reached at keast@washingtontimes.com.

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