Where Do Telecom Lobbyists Come From?

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UPDATE – 8/10/10: On Monday, August 9, 2010, Google and Verizon introduced a joint proposal for the future of Internet regulation. The proposal would give greater power to industry lead advisory groups and exempt wireless broadband services from regulation, significantly realigning the debate on net neutrality. While the repercussions of this proposal are being hashed out, we recommend this article on the pact from the New York Times for an update on where Google and Verizon fall on the net neutrality scale.

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a bit of a conundrum. Following an unfavorable court ruling on the extent of the Commission’s powers to regulate Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the FCC has gone back to the drawing board to sketch out how “Internet Services” should be defined — but they won’t be making this decision alone. A multitude of parties with a stake in the (re)definition of these services have directed their resources toward Capitol Hill in an effort to influence lawmakers into seeing things their way.

To shine a little sunlight on this process, we’ve developed this net neutrality primer. Below you’ll find a micro-history of the issue, a chart to introduce you to the major players, and some graphic-packed research into the lobbyists they’ve brought on board.*

The Power of Definition

What’s in a name? Would that which we call “Internet services” by any another name be treated differently?

Actually, yes.

ISPs are intent on maintaining the definition of the Internet as an “information service” as classified under Title I of the Communications Act. The FCC and others, including content providers and e-retailers, are of another mind: the Internet should be regulated under Title II as a “telecommunications service.” The difference? The extent to which the government — the FCC — is empowered to regulate net services.

Last fall, in order to bolster the weak authority granted by Title I, the FCC beefed up its Internet Policy Statement to allow the Commission to regulate ISPs in favor of open Internet principles like net neutrality. To be “net neutral” is to be content-blind, enabling among other things equal quality and speed of access to the Internet, regardless of where web traffic is directed.

In 2008, the FCC attempted to use the authority granted by its Internet Policy Statement to crack down on Comcast (a telecom and major ISP), which was restricting access to a peer-to-peer sharing network. Comcast responded by challenging the Commission in court. Although there was legal precedence for the FCC’s behavior, in April 2010 a federal appellate court ruled in favor of Comcast, stating that policy is not law.

Invested parties on both sides reacted strongly, unleashing swat teams of lobbyists on Washington to push for status quo or pull for a reclassification of Internet services, with a few shades in between. FCC Chair Julius Genachowski tried to offer a “Third Way” to resolve the deadlock, but so far the feedback to his proposal — a mixture of regulatory authority generated by Titles I and II — has ranged from mixed support to outright rejection.

To help make the interests and demands of these actors more transparent, we’ve constructed a chart to walk you though the arguments of some of the biggest players on each side.

The Power of Numbers

So what do you do to ensure that you get your way in a redefinition of power and regulation? Why, lobby, of course! And who better to lobby Congress than former lawmakers and government workers themselves? According to research by my colleague Paul Blumenthal (based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics), nearly seventy-two percent of lobbyists hired by the top telecommunications companies have previous government experience. But those opposed to net neutrality aren’t the only ones spinning the revolving door to protect their interests. Seventy-four percent of the lobbyists hired by Microsoft and Google, two of the biggest proponents of net neutrality, also worked in government.

To have “worked in government” means that a lobbyist has held at least one job with at least one government division: Congress, the White House, or a federal agency. By an overwhelming majority, most lobbyists on both sides of the issue have had experience working in Congress. Of the 274 lobbyists hired by AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, National Cable & Television Association, and the US Telecom Association against net neutrality, 247 worked in some capacity in Congress — that’s ninety percent of the lobbyists hired. Of that 247, 201 trace their work history back to Congress exclusively; the other 47 held positions with multiple branches of government. Prior work history reveals a professional and personal network of influence: the more connections, the more leverage.

For those hired by Google, Microsoft, Amazon, eBay, Tivo, and the Independent Film & Television Association (IFTA) to lobby in favor of net neutrality, ninety-one percent (141 of 155 lobbyists) had work experience in Congress. Of those, 118 worked only with Congress, and 26 lobbyists worked with multiple branches of government.

So what do these numbers tell us — or rather, what can they show us? Take a peek at the infographic I built off of Paul’s research below. Whether Comcast hired more former White House staffers than Google matters little. What does matter are the connections held by each lobbyist. Prior work history reveals a professional and personal network of influence: the people a lobbyist knows and may be able to call upon to support their clients. The more connections, the more leverage. When former congressional staffers (and congressmen) work as lobbyists, they bring with them a well developed network with ties to government. These networks often prove critical to the policy-making process. In some cases, the most powerful connections are to congressional members and their staff who would have to weigh in on any legislative change to the operation of the FCC.

Some points to keep in mind about this data: some of the companies on both sides of the net neutrality issue hired the same firms to lobby in their interest. If you check out this spreadsheet noting the names of all the lobbyists discussed in this article, you’ll see that many lobbyists are listed as working for companies on both sides of net neutrality. Due to the structure and requirements of lobbyist disclosure forms, we don’t know the extent to which any one lobbyist worked on a specific issue or how much money was spent on that issue. We can, however, match the lobbying “teams” to the issues they lobbied on.

Although the top six opponents of net neutrality camp are well known, we chose to include some lesser known advocates — Tivo and IFTA — to account for a equivalent range of six major players on the pro-net neutrality side. More well-known net neutrality advocates like Facebook, PayPal, and the OIC** did not disclose any lobbying data related to net neutrality for the first quarter of 2010 (where the rest of our data comes from). Seeking a fairer comparison between the anti- and pro-net neutrality camps, we included Tivo and IFTA’s lobbying data because they are vocal advocates and represent some of the diversity of the content providers in favor of net neutrality.

In a more transparent world we could make the most of this data by comparing the amount of money spent by each interested party on their lobbyists to trace the price of influence. Unfortunately, with the electronic disclosure system as it is now, we can only wait for quarterly releases of aggregate data that hint at greater issues but reveal less than we need to know. If you’re interested in learning more about what you can do to help to bring public data online, in real time, check out our Public=Online campaign.

* The Sunlight Foundation takes no position on the FCC’s title reclassification of ISPs. ** Note: PayPal is a subsidiary of eBay, which did lobby on net neutrality issues in the first quarter of 2010 (disclosed here and here). The Open Internet Coalition (OIC) was also registered to lobby on these issues. We erred in saying that they didn’t lobby.

EDIT: Four lobbyists hired by interests on the pro-net neutrality side were accounted for twice in the original data we published. The total of lobbyists with congressional work experience is 118, not 121. The numbers in the infographic and the above statistics have been correct to account for this change.

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  • DrClue

    I personally do believe that the Internet
    should be re-classified as a
    telecommunications service.

    Back in the 90’s the public Internet was
    mostly an information service, but that has dramatically changed.

    All my telephone service comes through the Internet. (Telecommunications)

    Most of my mail has long since departed
    the postmaster general to arrive at my in box. (Telecommunications)

    All of my television viewing currently arrives via the Internet (Telecommunications)

    Of course on the Internet there is plenty
    of “411”, but that aspect of phone service did not re-classify it as an (Information Service)

    It’s a simple fact that those societies
    with Internet infrastructure are migrating nearly all their telecommunications to this one medium,
    so this medium now lives in telecommunications and should be regulated as such.

    Would you say that companies like “Vonage” are truly “information services”
    or would you fess to the fact that they
    are “Telecommunications”

    Trying to claim that we should retain
    an old out of date “Information services” definition when indeed most of our “Telecommunications” is , or is heading for the Internet is sorta like claiming one is only “A little pregnant”

    The internet long past PREGNANT, and the
    child IS TELECOMMUNICATIONS and should be regulated as such, right down to them wire tapping laws.

  • @Brett:

    This was an apples to apples comparison. That’s why we didn’t include 3rd party groups funded by *either* side.

    That’s why we also didn’t include groups like Broadband for America or FreedomWorks that are active on the issue.

    And that, by the way, don’t publish their funding streams on an easy to find portion of their website. :)

  • Brett Glass

    Unlike the astroturf lobbyists at the Sunshine Foundation and Google’s other lobbying groups, I work for myself and for my customers, and I am not paid a dime for my advocacy. I do it because I refuse to let Google and its lobbyists harm my business, my employees, my customers, or this country with its destructive “network neutrality” agenda.

  • Michael Logue

    Brett Glass, I dare you to tell us who you work for and how much you are paid to slander any organization that even seems to give the appearance of being pro-net neutrality. Net neutrality is good for the country, but might harm the ability of the large ISP’s and Telecoms to reap exorbitant profits at the expense of the public. This is obvious to anyone who is not blinded by greed, paid to lie, or confused by the lies spread by your employers.

  • malmac

    Your “Where Do Telecom Lobbyists Come From?” chart is a little misleading. In fact, the underlying spreadsheet suggests that a significant number, and probably a majority, of the people included in the two categories (“Hired to work against net neutrality” or “Hired to work against net neutrality”) do not work on this issue.

    In the spreadsheet, your characterization of these people as “Lobbyists Hired by Corporations Against Net Neutrality” is more accurate. The title recognizes that many of these corporations work on issues besides telecom and that many of their employees have never worked on telecom issues (they are health lobbyists, energy lobbyists or lobbyists for some other issue.)

  • Brett Glass

    Oh, and I’m sure that we can trust the Sunlight Foundation, with its many ties to Google (both financial and personal), to be impartial. Not. In fact, its latest round of lobbying on “network neutrality” confirms that it’s very much in bed with Google. Yet another DC astroturf group.

  • Rheinhard

    biggovernment.com? That would be the site run by Andrew Breitbart, who has now been shown conclusively to be a lying right-wing propagandist by putting out a doctored video to smear a low level USDA employee as a “reverse racist”, who was in fact talking about the similarity of white and black farmers facing foreclosures, and that the divide is not white/black but rich/poor? The Andrew Breitbart who, when confronted with the fact that he did NO investigation whatsoever into the veracity of the video he publicized, and who saw the supposed white “victims” of this employee saying they were helped by her and consider her a lifelong friend, questioned whether the victims were really who they said they were? That Andrew Breitbart?

    Yeah, I’m sure we can trust everything on his website is throughly researched.

  • Brett,
    We do mention Google’s lobbying in this very article: “Seventy-four percent of the lobbyists hired by Microsoft and Google, two of the biggest proponents of net neutrality, also worked in government.” Aside from that, the former Google employee who serves on our Advisory Board never served on our Board of Directors. We’re being entirely up front.

  • Brett Glass

    $66,000 is quite a hefty contribution. Quite enough to create an irreparable conflict of interest. And that’s only the amount Google has given in one year; it’s actually given quite a bit more.

    We can see that conflict of interest clearly in the output of the “Sunlight Foundation” — which is, essentially, lobbying for Google’s corporate interests.

    What’s more, there was indeed a Google employee listed as being on the board of the “Sunlight Foundation” until perhaps a week or two ago — when her name was moved to its “advisory board” (no less damning).

    The nonsensical posting from “public interest” above (interesting that he or she isn’t using a real name!) merely confirms that several Washington, DC lobbying groups which claim to be acting in the “public interest” are in fact Google lobbyists.

    For the truth about the “Sunlight Foundation” (interesting that it takes a third party to shine light on its activities!), see the very insightful expose’s on the site biggovernment.com.

  • Don’t bother, Jake. Many of us have been down this road before with Brett. He sees what he wants to see, even when shown clear evidence to the contrary.

    As a self-proclaimed “independent ISP” it seems like he advocates against his own self-interests on this issue.

    Or maybe he just doesn’t want competition from other ISPs in his area, should the FCC be able to move forward with its National Broadband Plan proposals — which requires some FCC regulatory oversight of this, ahem, *communications* platorm.

  • Write your congressmen to protect the open internet http://bit.ly/aNhDmY !

  • Jake Brewer

    Hi Brett,

    The Sunlight Foundation certainly does have a good relationship with Google, but we’ve in no way slanted any coverage. We’re simply taking data here and comparing it.

    Google has been particularly helpful as sponsors of our open-to-the-public Apps for America contests (among other sponsors) and provided open space for use in our Transparency Camps. Additionally their products like Fusion Tables, Maps, and others are incredibly useful in the work we do to open government data. It’s tremendously valuable that those tools are available both for groups like ours, and for anyone.

    You can see just how much in the way of contributions Google has made to Sunlight – as well as all our funders – here: http://sunlightfoundation.com/funding/

    Last year they gave a total of $66,067 – well less than 1% of our budget – and this year they’ve contributed a total of $30,000 for Transparency Camp and our Design for America contest. We thank them for their generous support certainly, but rest assured their contributions have exerted no influence on us or our work.

    You can also see a list of our board of directors and our advisory board here: http://sunlightfoundation.com/board_of_directors/

    …where you will find no Google employees.

    Please feel free to dig around further, we’re open and more than willing to answer questions.

  • Brett Glass

    P.S. — Apparently, the Sunlight Foundation has accepted DIRECT contributions from Google; see http://sunlightfoundation.com/funding/. Perhaps that’s why it posted the article above, which itself constitutes lobbying for Google’s corporate agenda.

  • Brett Glass

    The fact that the chart above does not include Google’s many “astroturf” lobbying groups — including Public Knowledge, Free Press, the New America Foundation, Future of Music Coalition, etc — is telling. It shows that the Sunlight Foundation is slanting its output in favor of Google. Why? Could it be because there’s a Google employee on its board? Or because many of its other board members likewise have ties to, and/or are beneficiaries of, Google? Perhaps the “Sunlight Foundation” should do an article shining a little sunlight on its connections to Google. But I doubt that it would, or that the article would be honest.

  • Frank

    This basically just means we need to pay congressional staff more than the private companies so that they stay working for the public in Congress. Its sad how little congressional staff are paid versus their identical counterparts who are paid 2, 3, or 4 times the amount to lobby them.