Not long ago, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney promised his administration would battle online smut by strictly enforcing obscenity laws and compelling businesses to install pornography filters on every new computer sold in the United States.
That's what makes it jarring that Romney's all-but-defunct 2012 presidential committee — with an assist from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul — is associating itself with a stealthy front group that decries "government censorship" and is best known for producing a cheeky porno spoof that lambastes Internet regulation.
The motive? Cash.
Romney's committee continues to make money by renting the personal information of supporters to big data companies, which in turn peddle the information to most any special interest willing to pay for it, regardless of its views.
Paul, R-Ky., sent an email on Monday in conjunction with an organization called "Protect Internet Freedom" that contends that "net neutrality" stands opposite freedom. The "net neutrality" debate concerns government rules that prevent Internet service providers from blocking or slowing online content, or prioritizing certain content in exchange for payment. The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote this week on new "net neutrality" regulations, which many major telecom companies and trade groups have aggressively opposed.
Paul is a potential 2016 presidential candidate, and his father, Ron Paul, ran for president against Romney in 2012.
"These attempts to regulate the Internet are a direct attack on the freedom of information and an innovative market," Paul wrote in the email topped with a Protect Internet Freedom logo. "The government needs to stay out of the way ... We have to stop this aggressive, invasive and harmful regulation and we need all the help we can get to do it."
After Paul's signature come the message's disclaimers.
"This email was sent by: Romney for President Inc.," it reads. "This message reflects the opinions and representations of the Protect Internet Freedom, and is not an endorsement by Mitt Romney. You are receiving this email because you signed up as a member of Mitt Romney's online community."
Indeed, Romney's campaign has treated its "community" as a commodity ripe for exploitation: Documents filed with the Federal Election Commission indicate Romney's campaign has been renting its supporters' data since not long after Barack Obama defeated him in November 2012.
During 2014 alone, Romney's committee, which continues a long tradition of high-profile politicos such as Obama and Hillary Clinton renting out their supporters' information, earned nearly $2 million off its supporters' information, FEC records indicate.
Data and political consulting companies such as FLS Connect, NewsMax Media and Targeted Victory, the latter co-founded by Romney's former campaign digital director Zac Moffatt, are among the Romney campaign's information brokerage clients.
So is New Hampshire-based Granite Lists LLC, which paid the Romney campaign more than half a million dollars last year.
On its website, Granite Lists prominently advertises Romney supporter data as a "highly-responsive list" that "includes donors who passionately support the Republican principles of limited government, fiscal discipline, and free enterprise."
Jordan Gehrke, a conservative political operative whose resume includes stints leading a pro-Herman Cain super PAC and advising Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., during his 2014 campaign, is helping lead Protect Internet Freedom.
Gehrke confirmed to the Center for Public Integrity that his group did make a "one-time rental" of the Romney's supporter list, which contains the information of millions of people.
He added more than 800,000 people have already signed an anti-"net neutrality" petition that Protect Internet Freedom is pushing.
Gehrke says his upstart group, which he described as a nonprofit "social welfare" organization, has more than 2,000 donors. He declined to name any of them, saying its "not safe for us to disclose our donors" because he's concerned the Internal Revenue Service will target the organization because of its political views.
This isn't the first time Romney's committee made a buck by renting its supporter data to groups whose views or style may not jibe with the image of the straight-arrow candidate.
An extreme example came in 2013, when the American Unity Fund, a social welfare nonprofit "dedicated to advancing the cause of freedom for gay and lesbian Americans," successfully rented Romney's supporter list and blasted Romney backers with messages, as RedState.com reported.
Romney has consistently opposed same-sex marriages.
As for "net neutrality," Romney has said he opposes the idea in principle, while also calling for strict government controls over certain Internet content, namely pornography. Obama supports"net neutrality" policy.
Spokespeople for Romney and Paul could not be reached for comment.