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House Dems call for FTC inquiry into 'Obama phone' website

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) mentioned the website during a House hearing earlier in the day that examined the Lifeline program, which is managed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

"There's Obamaphone.net. It answers a lot of these questions, accurately, on who's qualified [for the program]," Shimkus said. "That's how you pull it up. You've got the 'Obama phone' rap out there. You can just Google it and that leads to this frustration and anger about people getting free phones, and they're receiving this based on rate payers."

Republicans have criticized the Lifeline program as wasteful government spending. Critics often refer to it as the "Obama phone" program.

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In their letter to the FTC, Eshoo and Lujan question the legitimacy of the website.

"Regrettably, even some members of Congress seem to be confused by the misleading information being spread about the Lifeline program. At today's hearing, one member claimed that consumers can visit the Obamaphone.net website for 'accurate' information on the program," the two write.

During the hearing, Lujan noted it says in fine print on the website that it's in "'no way affiliated with the United States government, the United States President, any of the departments within the federal government, or any of the state or local jurisdictions located within the United States,'" the letter reads.

The two Democrats say false information has spread about the Lifeline program, which was first enacted by Congress under the Reagan administration.

"Some press reports have inaccurately claimed that the Obama administration is giving away 'free government cell phones' with taxpayer dollars. These claims are patently false," Eshoo and Lujan write. "Lifeline is not paid for out of the U.S. Treasury and while some carriers in the program have made a business decision to provide free devices to Lifeline customers, the program does not fund free iPhones, iPads or any other wireless device."

The FCC expanded the program to cover cellphone service in 2005.

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Funding for the program comes via fees that telephone companies pass on to consumers on their monthly bills.

The program pays for phone service, though not the phone handsets themselves. But many companies that receive funding through the program offer free and low-cost phones to their subscribers.

This week, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) re-introduced a bill that proposes to expand the Lifeline program to broadband Internet.

Shimkus' office issued a statement late Thursday that said the Obamaphone.net website was taken down shortly after he mentioned it during the hearing.

A visit to Obamaphone.net shows the website still loads, but the Web address changes to www.freegovernmentcellphones.net.

"While the intent of the Lifeline program has some merit providing a vital connection for the elderly or poor, it has grown into free cell phones for way too many people," Shimkus said in a statement. "I am pleased that the FCC has taken some steps to reign the program in, but they still do not even have a budget for the Lifeline program." 

Brendan Sasso contributed to this report.