Three of the largest internet service providers and the cable television industry’s primary trade association have spent more than a half-billion dollars lobbying the federal government during the past decade on issues that include net neutrality, according to a MapLight analysis.
Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) have spent $572 million on attempts to influence the FCC and other government agencies since 2008. The FCC, a five-member independent panel, is considering the abolition of “net neutrality” rules, or regulations that require internet companies to treat all content equally.
The amount represents more than $100 for each of the 5.6 million public comments on the FCC’s proposed elimination of net neutrality rules.
The FCC’s decision, slated to be announced later this summer, will be a clear indicator of the power of corporate cash in a Trump administration. Public sentiment is on the side of keeping the Obama administration’s net neutrality policies, which prevented internet companies from blocking, slowing or giving priority to different websites. More than 75 percent of adults said in a poll released last month that they favor net neutrality.
The potential loss of net neutrality has created a frenzy of online activism. An average of almost 75,000 daily comments on the subject have been received on the FCC’s website, even before a “Day of Action” on Wednesday that’s designed to draw more attention to the FCC plan.
Lost in the Cloud
The heart of net neutrality is a guarantee of equal access to all internet traffic. Advocates worry that if the commission follows through with its proposal, some websites might work better than others, especially if the owners aren’t charged a premium. For example, Comcast might choose to slow Netflix traffic since it owns NBC, a part-owner of Hulu, which is a Netflix competitor. AT&T has been criticized for offering unlimited free access to its DirecTV subsidiary for its customers -- but not to customers of competitors, such as Dish Network -- for its mobile phone customers.
The Republican-dominated commission, led by Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, argue their proposal wouldn’t eliminate net neutrality. Instead, it would scrap regulations that treat internet service providers as “common carriers” required to offer equal treatment to all customers. Under the Republican plan, internet service providers would agree to voluntarily comply with net neutrality concepts, and the Federal Trade Commission, which currently has no authority to regulate the issue, would protect consumer interests.
Opponents of the commission’s proposal argue that the net neutrality concept is based upon antiquated laws designed to regulate telephone companies, not internet providers. Industry officials have argued government involvement slows investment, stifles small businesses with unnecessary regulations, and addresses problems that don’t exist.
“We don’t block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content delivered over the internet, and we are committed to continuing to manage our business and network with the goal of providing the best possible consumer experience,” Brian Roberts, Comcast chief executive officer, said in an April statement.
But Roberts, whose company has spent $141.2 million during the past decade while lobbying the government on issues that include net neutrality, said the Trump administration’s plans are simply trying to remove a “cloud over broadband investment decisions and innovation.”
AT&T, which has spent $148.8 million during the last 10 years while lobbying government agencies, and Verizon, which has dropped $133.9 million, also argue that they support the concept of net neutrality but not the rules that enforce it.
Both companies were investigated by the Obama administration for violating the rules by allowing their own video services to exceed mobile data caps that were enforced on other content providers. The investigation was shut down by the Trump administration in early February, less than one month after taking office.
Day of Action
Despite the resources devoted to the rollback by the big internet service providers, net neutrality advocates haven’t been totally bereft of support in the nation’s capital. Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, has spent $41.1 million lobbying in the nation’s capital. Facebook, which boasts 2 billion unique monthly users, has spent almost $43.3 million.
The two internet giants are joining about 200 organizations in the Wednesday “Day of Action” to protest any rollback of net neutrality regulations. Supporters of the protest include Netflix, Etsy, Twitter, Reddit, the American Civil Liberties Union and Pornhub.
MapLight analysis of federal lobbying disclosure filings from the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives for clients that report lobbying activity on net neutrality, as retrieved on July 3, 2017. Lobbying totals represent money paid by an organization to each lobbying firm for services on all issues, not just net neutrality.
Organizations report total lobbying expenses as a lump sum, which includes both in-house lobbying expenses and amounts paid to (and reported by) lobbying firms that they hire. MapLight calculates in-house lobbying expenses by subtracting the total income reported by the lobbying firms that it hires from the organization's total reported expenses. The in-house lobbying amounts are used for this analysis when the client organization reported lobbying on tax issues on their reports, in addition to registrant reports that include tax issues.