Activists protesting outside FCC headquarters in Washington, DC, on May 15, 2014. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Consumer advocates everywhere are demanding that the Federal Communication Commission continue down its current path for shelving net neutrality and allowing a two-tiered internet. That is, if cable company-created front groups and other industry-funded organizations are to be believed.
The controversy, at the moment, rests on a legal distinction. A federal lawsuit filed by Verizon has forced the FCC into a corner by creating a standard under which effective net-neutrality rules—which ensure all internet traffic is treated equally—can only be reached, according to most analysts, by classifying the internet as a "common carrier," or in other words, a public utility. Such a distinction would allow the FCC to demand that internet service providers, like Comcast or Verizon, are not allowed to create internet slow lanes and fast lanes.
To the surprise of probably no one, ISPs are enraged at the prospect of being classified as a utility and are fighting back. But the attacks are not fully transparent. Many of the organizations protesting a move toward classifying ISPs as a utility, which is the only likely option for enacting net neutrality, are funded by the ISP lobby.
Take this opinion column by former Republican Senator John Sununu and former Democratic Congressman Harold Ford in the San Francisco Chronicle. The pair argues that reclassification would lead to "chronic underinvestment" in broadband services while threatening job loss. The disclaimer running under their byline says they are honorary co-chairs of Broadband for America, which the paper describes as "a coalition of 300 internet consumer advocates, content providers, and engineers."
A disclosure obtained by VICE from the National Cable and Telecom Association (NCTA), a trade group for ISPs, shows that the bulk of Broadband for America's recent $3.5 million budget is funded through a $2 million donation from NCTA. Last month, Broadband for America wrote a letter to the FCC bluntly demanding that the agency “categorically reject” any effort toward designating broadband as a public utility. It wasn't signed by any internet consumer advocates, as the Sununu-Ford letter suggests. The signatures on the letter reads like a who's who of ISP industry presidents and CEOs, including AT&T's Randall Stephenson, Cox Communications' Patrick Esser, NCTA president (and former FCC commissioner) Michael Powell, Verizon's Lowell McAdam, and Comcast's Brian Roberts.
Notably, Broadband for America's most recent tax filing shows that it retained the DCI Group, an infamous lobbying firm that specializes in creating fake citizen groups on behalf of corporate campaigns.
Another group leading the charge is the American Consumer Institute. The organization recently filed a letter with the FCC opposing reclassification, and argues that ISPs should be left alone. "The fact is that the broadband market is competitive and becoming more so," wrote ACI, which claims that consumers currently enjoy "increased choice." In January, ACI called the Verizon lawsuit that struck down the original FCC net-neutrality guidelines, "a victory for consumers."
Why would a self-professed consumer advocacy group not only oppose moving toward net neutrality but claim that America's broadband market—one of the slowest, most expensive in the industrialized world with fewer than three choices in many parts of the country—is so great?
Perhaps because ACI, like Broadband for America, is financed by an ISP lobby group. Annual tax returns show that a foundation controlled by lobbyists from the cell phone industry, called MyWireless.org, has contributed to ACI since 2010.
Other cable-funded allies have helped spread doubt about net neutrality. "If broadband providers want to start charging Netflix and Google for hogging all the bandwidth, that is their right as the owners of those networks," said Jim Lakely of the Heartland Institute, who called net neutrality regulations "a solution in search of a problem."
Leaked documents from the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank famous for shilling on behalf of corporate donors, show major funds from Comcast, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable.
The push for reclassifying broadband as a utility may be an uphill battle. As VICE first reported, the FCC is led by a former cable-industry lobbyist, and many of his chief staffers are also former Comcast attorneys. Several new FCC staffers previously lobbied the agency against net neutrality in the past.
Still, the public is beginning to mobilize around the issue. Advocacy organizations focused on promoting a free and fair Internet, including Free Press, Color of Change, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Demand Progress, and others, are using the FCC comment period, in which the agency is soliciting outside feedback about the rule-making, as an opportunity to organize the public.
Last Sunday, John Oliver rallied viewers of his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, to submit comments to the FCC in support of net neutrality. The response has overwhelmed the agency with thousands of comments.
Lee Fang, a San Francisco–based journalist, is an Investigative Fellow at The Nation Institute and co-founder of Republic Report.