Where Do Telecom Lobbyists Come From?


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.


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.