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Oklahoma Turnpike Authority purchased oppositional domain names ahead of ACCESS project rollout

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The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is coming under fire for purchasing domain names that oppose its 15-year, $5 billion ACCESS Oklahoma turnpike program.

During proceedings of a lawsuit alleging the OTA violated the state’s Open Meeting Act, an email was produced that showed strategic communications director Jessica Brown directing its public relations firm, Jones PR, to buy up 23 oppositional domain names, two weeks before the rollout of the ACCESS project in February.

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An email showing the OTA’s domain purchases ahead of the ACCESS Oklahoma rollout in February.
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An email showing the OTA’s domain purchases ahead of the ACCESS Oklahoma rollout in February.

Some examples of the websites listed are StopAccessOklahoma.com, OklahomansAgainstTurnpikes.com, and EndOTA.com. The OTA denies allegations the move was an attempt to silence opposition, but said it’s common industry practice to ensure the public gets accurate information.

OTA public information officer Bryce Boyer responded to a request for comment with a statement written by Jessica Brown:

“It is common practice and the industry standard for an entity to purchase multiple domain names to help ensure the public has access to accurate information, to bar phishing sites with very similar domain names, and to protect against user error. In no form or fashion has the OTA ever attempted to silence those opposed to turnpikes.”

Lawyers filed the Open Meeting Act suit against the OTA on behalf of residents impacted by the future turnpike project. Their suit alleges the OTA did not provide the public an opportunity to reasonably understand the impact or the details of the ACCESS project, or to object to it.

A turnpike opposition group, PikeOff OTA, estimates 650 homes will be demolished for the project — though the OTA has said this number is likely closer to 200.

In court documents, plaintiff lawyers Stanley Ward, Richard Labarthe and Alexey Tarasov write the move to buy up the domains shows intent to stifle public opposition:

“To consider just how secretive (and deliberate) the OTA was in the weeks leading up to the 2/2/22 rollout, one need look no further than the OTA’s secret purchases of all possible domains that might have proven useful to ACCESS Oklahoma and the Kickapoo Turnpike extension opponents (had prospective opponents and the general public been let in on the grand secret in time to secure such website names for themselves).”

StateImpact reached out to public relations expert and OU professor Jensen Moore about industry standards for preemptive domain purchasing. She wrote that while it is standard practice to buy domain names that could defraud or misinform the public, it is not standard practice to purchase names of hypothetical oppositional organizations:

“One of the ethical issues involved in public relations is failure to provide the public with information that allows them to make informed decisions. Purchasing domain names where oppositional information can readily be shared is denying the public access to alternative viewpoints that would allow them to be informed. It is not about disinformation — it’s about denying oppositional information. From a public relations standpoint, this is unethical of the OTA to do because they are purposely attempting to limit any information that publics need to make decisions about this project.”

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Beth reports on education topics for StateImpact Oklahoma.
StateImpact Oklahoma reports on education, health, environment, and the intersection of government and everyday Oklahomans. It's a reporting project and collaboration of KGOU, KOSU, KWGS and KCCU, with broadcasts heard on NPR Member stations.
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