A Revolving Door of Telecom Lobbyists Is Paving a Fast Lane Over the Open Web

"The FCC might as well be a subsidiary of Comcast."

Apr 25 2014, 8:10pm
Image: ChrisDag/Flickr

The Federal Communications Commission is proposing we pave over the open internet with a 'fast lane' reserved for those who can afford to travel in style. (Let's just embrace the media's favorite metaphor for this contentious anti-public works project, shall we?) And make no mistake, lobbyists and ex-lobbyists are the ones in the ditches with neon orange vests, tearing up the flat, even ground on which the internet was built.

The FCC, led by former telecom lobbying chief Tom Wheeler, is prepared to allow service providers like Verizon and Comcast to charge content companies more for faster internet speeds. So, eventually, the website for Fox News—to harken back to a reference offered up by a pre-presidential, open internet-championing Barack Obama—might fly down the interstate like a spit-shined Lamborghini. Obama's "mom and pop sites," meanwhile, would put along, the internet equivalent of a rusty VW van.

The proposed rules were met with an instant, internet-wide backlash (the kind that will no doubt arrive much slower in coming years). Tim Wu, who coined the term net neutrality, said it amounted to "net discrimination." Wheeler said that such criticisms were "flat-out wrong," but pretty much confirmed everyone's fears when he all but guaranteed he would allow for fast lane pricing in an FCC blog post.

So how'd we get here? How did Obama go from championing an open web to potentially presiding over the very dismantling of its openness? It's likely that his idealism eroded, the same way most starry-eyed candidates' idealism does; worn to a nub by a relentless tide of industry lobbying and influence peddling.

The telecom industry—which sees those fast lanes as a potentially massive source of profit—has persistently fought for business-friendly rules that allow for bandwidth throttling, the practice of giving preference to some kinds of traffic over others. In the meanwhile, it wormed a business-friendly crew of pro-telecom pencil pushers into the highest offices, ingratiating itself to the Democratic party through fundraisers and campaign donations. Comcast and Verizon alone have donated at least $1 million to Obama during the last elections.

"The telecoms and other businesses have engaged in tried and true regulatory capture tactics," David Segal, the chairman of Demand Progress, wrote me in an email, "by becoming massive donors to politicians who have oversight over the agencies, by spending untold millions each year on lobbying, and by offering jobs to people who've recently held regulatory posts."

That's no exaggeration. The FCC is a greased-up a revolving a door of ex-telecom industry personnel. According to OpenSecrets.org, "18 people have both lobbied for Comcast and spent time in the public sector. Of those, 12 are currently registered lobbyists for Comcast, with five of them having spent time at the FCC." Conversely, there are at least four workers in Wheeler's office alone that have either lobbied directly for Comcast, a trade group that represents its interests, or a law firm that advises the company.

"The FCC might as well be a subsidiary of Comcast"

It epitomizes the fox-watching-the-henhouse phenomenon so prevalent, and often so disastrous, in this murky age of big money politics—think of the ex-oil industry folks regulating offshore drilling at the Mineral Management Services right before the BP oil spill, or the meat and poultry industry people the USDA is recruiting to regulate food safety

As such, that a particularly telecom-friendly proposal to end net neutrality would weasel its way into consideration is hardly surprising. Nor is it surprising that when it comes to the FCC, almost all roads lead to Comcast, the company most primed to benefit from those slick new internet fast lanes—after all, it is poised to absorb Time Warner and become the biggest telecom in the history of the nation, thanks to the FCC's favorable merger rulings. 

So how corrupted is the office charged to protect consumers from telecom monopolists and traffic profiteers? How bad is it, really? According to the watchdog group LittleSis.org, which maintains a "free database of who-knows-who at the heights of business and government," it's about as bad as it gets. Kevin Connor, the org's co-founder, used LittleSis's new mapping tool, which is currently in beta, to whip up a chart of the interconnected FCC-telecom lovefest transpiring in just Wheeler's office alone for Motherboard:

"The FCC might as well be a subsidiary of Comcast, once you map out the org chart," Connor told me. "The regulators used to work for the industry, they will in the future, and they think they do right now. So they make the policy work for the industry, and that's how you get proposals like this one."

Let's begin, again, with Thomas Wheeler—follow along on the chart above! The Sunlight Foundation, a "nonpartisan resource for tracking Congress," nicely summarizes Wheeler's long history and deep ties with the telecom industry: "Deemed the 'Bo Jackson' of the communications world by a President Obama, Wheeler had played nearly every position in the telecom industry by the time he was nominated to Chair the agency."

He was the head of the CTIA, the wireless industry's largest lobbying group. "In addition to presiding over the CTIA and, before that, the National Cable Television Association (NCTA), Wheeler was a managing director at a venture capital firm and a co-founder of SmartBrief," Sunlight explains. The NCTA, of course, has heavy ties to Comcast. While Wheeler was steering the telecom industry's lobbying operations, he also happened to be a major bundler for Obama's election campaigns. Between the 2008 and 2012 elections, he raised around $1 million and hosted high-profile fundraisers. 

No wonder net neutrality advocates fumed when Obama handed Wheeler the keys to the FCC. As soon as he got them, Wheeler also opened the door for a cadre of pro-industry players that joined his team, including Ruth Milkman, Wheeler's chief of staff. Milkman is an attorney, formerly of Lawler, Metzger, Milkman, and Kenney, a firm that now represents Comcast. While she was on board, it lobbied on behalf of Sprint Nextel, too.

Or how about Philip Verveer, Wheeler's senior counsel? He used to work for Willkie Farr & Gallagher, when the law firm was Comcast's "principal regulatory counsel," according to the National Law Journal. The article notes that Verveer "has been involved with the cellular phone industry since its inception." He's lawyered for Sprint, too, and before joining the FCC, held a high post in the CTIA.

The list goes on. It's almost a pointless exercise to connect the dots if they're just going to create giant, blurry blob of ink that engulfs both Comcast and the FCC. Daniel Alvarez, another member of Wheeler's legal council, worked at the Comcast-representing Willkie Farr, too. Maria Kirby hails from Davis Polk, "one of the most active law firms advising major media and telecommunications companies." Diane Kirby, Wheeler's special counsel, was the vice president of regulatory policy at CTIA. 

There is precisely one member of Wheeler's staff who does not hail from a background of lobbying for the telecom industry: Gigi B. Sohn, the president of Public Knowledge, a nonprofit that advocates for an open internet. What a lonely corner of the office hers must be. 

And that about sums up Chairman Wheeler's office—a lobbyist-packed Comcast annex that also employs a woman who must be a leading candidate for the most frustrated person in government. Other commissioners certainly don't have as deep ties to the industry (and nor are they as influential). In fact, notable Comcast unaffiliate Mignon Clyburn, who sat as the interim chairwoman while Wheeler was waiting to be confirmed, had a remarkably productive and progressive stint in the seat.

Revolving doors at the FCC have been the norm for years, of course. Meredith Atwell Baker, an FCC commissioner appointed in 2009, was an ardent opponent of net neutrality, and voted in favor of allowing the controversial Comcast-NBC Universal merger. Four months later, she quit and took a job at Comcast. That was just egregious enough to almost warrant an official investigation; the Free Press group sent a petition with 130,000 signatures requesting that Congress investigate, but to no avail. All she suffered was a round of ribbing on the Daily Show

OpenSecrets.org reveals that such side-swapping is common practice: "Four other former FCC employees have followed Baker's path to Comcast," it explains in a survey of the revolving door at FCC. "They include Rudy Brioche, who worked as an advisor to former commissioner Adelstein before moving to Comcast as its senior director of external affairs and public policy counsel in 2009. Brioche was so valued by the FCC, in fact, that he was brought in to join the commission's Advisory Committee for Diversity in the Digital Age in 2011." 

You're probably getting the point. So remember that when the New York Times reports that this is happening:

In the nine weeks since the Federal Communications Commission said it would try, for a third time, to write new rules to secure an open Internet, at least 69 companies, interest groups and trade associations—over one a day—have met with or otherwise lobbied commission officials on what the rules should specify.

Comcast wins. There's a serious precedent to work with here; Comcast typically gets what it wants. And right now, Comcast wants to end net neutrality

"Wheeler was a cable lobbyist. Comcast spent at least $19 million lobbying last year, and its PAC has already spent more than $2 million this cycle," Segal says. "How can the public interest possibly compete with all of that?"