Net Neutrality Kabuki Theater: How Cable Companies Dominate the Debate

The comment period for the public to weigh in on an open internet ends today. But has the telecom industry already won?

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Jul 18 2014, 2:30pm

Net neutrality backers at a recent rally in Vermont. Photo via Flickr user Free Press

After releasing a proposal that effectively ends net neutrality this spring, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened a comment period for members of the public to speak up and provide their two-cents on the future of the internet before the regulation is finalized. That comment period, after an unprecedented number of e-mails and letters came in, has been extended to today. But do these comments—which includes indignation at what at least one participant has deemed the FCC's "poop-laden plan"—even matter?

The only path forward for real net neutrality, a rule that prevents internet Service Providers (ISPs) from creating internet fast lanes and slow lanes, is for the FCC to reclassify broadband services as a public utility. That much was made clear by a federal court ruling in January. Will the outpouring of public demand for a free and open internet result in any movement on the issue? A look closer at the meetings that have gone on shows that the ISP lobby, including Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and others, has the FCC under its grip, and like so many policy disputes in Washington, the industry has gamed the process from the start.

VICE has obtained newly released ethics forms and meeting letters that show that the back and forth between regulators and industry is really just industry groups talking to their former colleagues. Beyond FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a former cable and wireless industry lobbyist, the revolving door spins throughout the entire agency. When a cable group asked to meet with the FCC on Net Neutrality, Wheeler dispatched an aide who just months ago worked for Comcast. When Verizon asked for a similar meeting, who led the gathering? A former Verizon lobbyist who recently became the FCC's general counsel. And a number of so-called public interest groups demanding that the FCC oppose public utility status are in fact ISP lobbyists in disguise.

Take Daniel Alvarez, an FCC attorney hired by Wheeler. As we reported in April, Alvarez worked in 2010 for Comcast to lobby against the first effort to enact net neutrality. VICE just obtained Alvarez's ethics form that shows that he was working for Comcast as recently as last year, just before he was hired to help oversee the latest net neutrality talks. In May of this year, representatives from the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (an umbrella group that represents the cable industry, including Comcast), requested a meeting on net neutrality and reclassification with the FCC. Who represented Wheeler at that meeting? Dan Alvarez.

In March, representatives from Verizon requested and obtained a meeting with the FCC to complain about the "adverse consequences" of reclassifying the internet as a public utility (and net neutrality). The FCC's representative to that meeting was none other than acting general counsel Jon Sallet, who just a few years ago was a partner to Verizon's lobbying firm, the Glover Park Group.

The comments from the public are being astroturfed as well. Last month, we revealed that two fake consumer groups funded by the ISP industry, Broadband for America and the American Consumer Institute, were lobbying the FCC to back down from reclassifying broadband as a utility. And a look at more recent submissions shows a steady stream of random civic organizations with ties to the ISP industry continuing this trend. On Thursday, for example, the Chicago area chapter of the National Black Chamber of Commerce filed a letter to the FCC claiming that reclassification of the internet as a public utility would somehow be a "major step backward for minority entrepreneurship and black business owners." The NBCC, notably, has received funds from Verizon and a cell phone industry lobbying group. 

Also on Thursday, VICE caught wind of what appears to be a slick new strategy by Comcast to buy left-leaning support. During the live stream of Vice President Joe Biden’s speech to Netroots Nation, a liberal blogging convention, MSNBC.com aired a bizarre ad claiming that Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable—which is currently awaiting regulatory approval, given the fact that the combined company will create monopolistic-like conditions by controlling about two-thirds of the US market—would somehow enhance net neutrality protections.

"How do you make online better?" the commercial asks. The ad continues by claiming that Comcast is committed to net neutrality, before declaring: "Comcast and Time Warner Cable: together is better for more people." A staffer on Capitol Hill noticed the video and sent us the clip. View the video below:

The claim by the MSNBC ad that Comcast not only supports net neutrality, but that its merger with Time Warner Cable would somehow enhance such protections, is odd. In May, Comcast filed a letter to the FCC explicitly opposing the effort to reclassify broadband services under Title II regulations. And for years, Comcast has battled net neutrality. But the feel-good ad, which builds on a Comcast marketing campaign that began in April, creates a blanket deception to hoodwink viewers about both the merger and the company’s position on the open Internet.

So on paper, the FCC is supposed to protect the interests of consumers and the general public. But the ISP lobby has transformed the entire net neutrality process into a kabuki theater of sorts, one in which the stage of policymaking appears to be open and honest, but all the main actors are playing from a familiar, industry-written script. 

Lee Fang, a San Francisco–based journalist, is an investigative fellow at the Nation Institute and co-founder oRepublic Report.

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