Net neutrality: A lobbying bonanza
By: Tony Romm
Whether you view net neutrality rules as a government takeover of the Internet or the only way to save the Web from corporate meddling, one thing is certain: The issue has been a boon to Washington lobbyists, lawyers and activists — and they’re poised to continue cashing in for years to come.
The fierce debate over FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal, which is headed for a commission vote Thursday, has proven to be a prime business opportunity for K Street, as some of the biggest U.S. companies and their trade groups try to sway opinion at the agency and on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers and consumer groups also have seized on the issue — and the passion it evokes — to drum up cash and support.
Wheeler’s plan would regulate broadband like a utility to ensure Internet providers don’t block or slow Web traffic. While the chairman appears to have the commission votes to advance his vision, telecom giants that oppose burdensome new rules are preparing to challenge the agency in court, and GOP lawmakers are readying a political counter-offensive — meaning the Beltway’s net neutrality feeding frenzy is only just beginning.
“Every time we’ve had something like this before, whether it’s in telecom or banking or health care, it becomes a lobbying and fundraising extravaganza, and net neutrality is no different,” said Bill Allison, senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation. “When Congress gets going, that’s when you’re going to see the fundraisers … off specific issues like this.”
Major Internet service providers AT&T, Comcast and Verizon are among the biggest opponents of Wheeler’s plan, and they have been fighting it intensely. They spent a combined $44.2 million to lobby Washington on a host of issues last year, with net neutrality among their top agenda items, according to company disclosures. Executives like AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam have personally met with Wheeler to press their views.
Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook have backed strong net neutrality rules, primarily via their trade group, the Internet Association. But the debate has also drawn in fresh-faced tech players like WordPress.com operator Automattic, crafts website Etsy and funding platform Kickstarter. The firms have taken an active role, working closely with groups like Engine Advocacy to press the case for robust open Internet protections in Washington.
With the FCC now poised to pass Wheeler’s proposal on a party-line vote, the telecom industry appears increasingly ready to sue, a move that would touch off another — potentially lucrative — chapter for participating D.C. law firms. AT&T’s Stephenson said this month that “all of us in the industry” may ask courts to halt Wheeler’s order. The legal challenge, once it gets underway, is expected to span multiple years and eventually could land at the Supreme Court.
“There are many interested groups and constituencies who have been following this, who will be actively involved no matter what happens,” said Peter Karanjia, a telecom lawyer at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP and a former FCC official. “There could be skirmishes over which court hears the inevitable legal challenge … and there will probably be filings in different appellate courts.”
Congress has emerged as another battleground on net neutrality, providing a new front in the lobbying war.
House and Senate Republicans recently launched investigations into White House interference with the FCC’s decision making, and GOP lawmakers are drafting legislation that would replace Wheeler’s order with weaker net neutrality rules. Republican leaders, meantime, want to update the country’s guiding telecommunications laws — a process that could redefine the scope of the FCC’s regulatory power.
The congressional efforts create new opportunities to shape the debate, particularly for the major telecom carriers, which donate extensively to congressional campaigns — and write regular checks to lawmakers who serve on key committees overseeing the industry. On the tech side, companies like Etsy, Tumblr and Lyft have mobilized, launching the Internet Freedom Business Alliance, which is focused on winning new net neutrality converts among skeptical conservatives.
“It’s similar to any other high-profile, in-the-moment issue that’s had years of work behind it,” said Andrew Shore, a lobbyist at Jochum Shore & Trossevin PC who heads the new group. “We’ll continue to work with Congress to make sure that the strong rule to protect the open Internet stays in place, regardless of who’s producing those rules.”
Some lawmakers have tried to use the net neutrality issue to rally their political base. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — a fierce critic of broadband regulation — regularly shares comments and videos slamming the FCC’s actions on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) last year recorded a video for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which redirected users to a way to donate to net neutrality advocates.
After President Barack Obama publicly endorsed utility-style regulation of broadband in November, Organizing for Action, the group spun off from his re-election campaign, blasted a statement to supporters touting the news — and included a donation link. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which raises money for House Democrats, did the same.
Consumer advocacy groups have also sought to tap into the net neutrality passions of their supporters.
Free Press, which has pushed the FCC to embrace tough broadband regulation, launched a campaign in May to raise $50,000 to “save the Internet” and said it could achieve a matching donation if it reached its goal. The donor, which wasn’t revealed publicly, was the Sy Syms Foundation. Another group, Demand Progress, received $175,000 last year to protect the open Internet from a fund supported by the Ford Foundation. The group has collected contact information from people who sign its petitions to recruit them for future campaigns.
“Are we fundraising off net neutrality? Absolutely,” said Free Press President Craig Aaron, noting his group has put that money back into issue advocacy. But, he added: “If there’s a ‘business’ of net neutrality, folks like Free Press and our allies are seriously outgunned.”
Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2015/02/net-neutrality-a-lobbying-bonanza-115385.html#ixzz3SaGRa4qf