Net neutrality foes take their fight to the airwaves

Graphic showing globally connected online devices
Image credit: Free Press/Flickr

Though the 114th Congress is still in its infancy, the Capitol Hill debate over the Federal Communications Commission’s proposed net neutrality regulations is fiery as ever, fanned by wide-ranging advocacy efforts on either side of the issue. The Capitol building, however, is not the only theater in the multi-front battle for public opinion. A Sunlight Foundation analysis of new TV contracts and lobbying disclosures show cable providers have upped the ante both on and off the Hill, spending big to sway both members of Congress and their constituents.

Cable giants and Internet activists both had the opportunity to air their grievances before federal legislators Wednesday in hearings before House and Senate committees. Both houses are considering Republican legislation that would ban broadband “throttling” and Internet fast lanes but prevent the FCC from regulating ISPs as a public utility.


MORE: See all of Sunlight’s reporting on net neutrality.


Public documents show that Internet service providers are increasingly targeting Joe Public with a slew of new ad buys on broadcast TV stations across the country.

Ad contracts collected by Political Ad Sleuth show that an organization called Broadband for America (BFA) has negotiated air time on local television stations across the country, from Chicago to Denver to relatively rural markets such as Bismarck, N.D. and Clarksburg, W.V.

Led by a bipartisan duo of former congressmen — Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., and Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn. — and funded largely by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the trade organization has been a consistent voice against net neutrality regulations, which it calls an “Internet tax on millions of customers,” citing a study by the Progressive Policy Institute. Free Press, an open Internet advocacy group, has argued the study is cable-backed misinformation.

BFA has contracted air time in at least 16 different markets in recent weeks, publicly available ad contracts show. NCTA’s president, Michael Powell, told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that his organization supports the current draft legislation and “will continue to reiterate [its] unwavering opposition to any proposal that attempts to reclassify broadband services under the heavy-handed regulatory yoke of Title II.” Powell has a unique perspective on this issue — he served as chairman at both BFA and the FCC.

Meanwhile, some of the biggest players opposing the Internet recasting continued to pour millions into their cabal of lobbyists. A preliminary analysis of fourth quarter lobbying reports finds that Comcast ($7.1 million), AT&T ($4.2 million) and Verizon ($3.7 million) each doled out millions lobbying congress from October through December of last year.

Each of those companies has a diverse legislative portfolio ranging from patent reform to cybersecurity to the tax code, making it unclear exactly how much each spent on net neutrality lobbying. A Sunlight analysis published in May of 2014 found that those three companies vastly outspent pro-neutrality groups that listed the issue a comparable number of times in their disclosures.

Google, the most well-heeled voice on the “free Internet” side, spent a little under $4.6 million lobbying last quarter.