The House passed Rep. Mike Doyle’s (D-Penn.) Save the Internet Act to restore strict Title II net neutrality rules Wednesday morning, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the bill is “dead on arrival,” and the White House promised to veto the bill should it ever reach President Donald Trump’s desk.
The bill strikes down the Federal Communications Commission’s 2017 Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which reversed the 2015 Open Internet Order. The 2015 order enabled the FCC to regulate the internet as a telecommunications service under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act.
Five years ago, no one considered the net neutrality debate a major political issue. (According to voter polls ahead of presidential and midterm elections, it still isn’t.) But when President Barack Obama politicized the issue in 2014, liberals latched onto the idea of a “free and open internet” and believed Title II-based net neutrality rules were — are — the only way to preserve it.
From there, political messaging drove the net neutrality debate, with Democrats on the side of Title II-based net neutrality and Republicans arguing that lighter-touch rules would be more effective. Republicans also argued the rules should come from Congress rather than a federal agency.
Pro-net neutrality advocacy groups warned that only Title II-based net neutrality rules classifying the internet as a “telecommunications service” could truly preserve a “free and open internet.” Think tanks opposed to strict net neutrality rules worried they would hurt broadband investment and chill innovation.
Pro-net neutrality advocates even went so far as to write a study with fake data showing net neutrality had no impact on broadband investment — not that they needed to, as broadband investment continues to increase on the whole, and net neutrality rules weren’t in effect long enough to provide sufficient data to prove any impact on broadband investment one way or the other.
Still, those opposed to strict net neutrality rules continue to argue there’s a causal relationship between Title II-based net neutrality rules and a “decline” in broadband investment.
When the Trump administration’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed the net neutrality rules created by the Obama administration’s FCC (the 2015 Open Internet Order) in December 2017, net neutrality advocacy exploded.
Tech publications like Gizmodo and the Verge predicted internet service providers (ISPs) and telecom companies would destroy the internet as we know it, and advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Fight for the Future (FFTF), Free Press and Public Knowledge flooded inboxes and the internet with rallying cries to save the internet, running polls to show that Americans care deeply about net neutrality, and calling out Democrats who weren’t supportive enough of the net neutrality crusade.
Some even peddled the idea that American democracy depends on net neutrality, and that the Trump administration’s FCC does everything it can to silence the voice of the people.
Casting themselves as the saviors of internet users everywhere, Democrats introduced the Save the Internet Act a month ago with a press conference establishing themselves as pro-consumer and anti-big business, even though Democrats know the Republican-controlled Senate won’t pass the bill, and even if it does, Trump won’t sign it.
At a press conference Tuesday ahead of the House vote on the bill, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who proposed non-Title II net neutrality legislation that only focuses on three bright line rules against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization, said the Democrats’ Save the Internet Act will “provide the authority for a government takeover and management of private networks or where and when new broadband networks can, or must, be deployed,” “allow government taxation of the internet,” and “limit the full potential of 5G and stifle the next wave of innovation in internet services.”
Walden and other conservatives fear Title II offers too-broad authority for the FCC to interpret at will when regulating the internet and internet services.
In an op-ed for Fox News last week, Walden wrote, “We do not need Title II to achieve real net neutrality,” further heightening the tension by dismissing Title II advocates and suggesting they don’t really care about the issue.
While the outcomes predicted by both sides are within the realm of plausibility, the debate isn’t nearly as black and white or dramatic as Democrats and Republicans paint it.
Silicon Valley funds the pro-net neutrality advocates because net neutrality benefits Big Tech, and ISPs and telcos fund the anti-net neutrality think tanks because net neutrality doesn’t benefit Big Cable or Big Telecom.
Just by looking at the donors, net neutrality is a battle between two industries vying for a policy decision to protect profits.
Silicon Valley heavyweights like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Netflix spent more than $40 million lobbying on net neutrality in 2017 ahead of the FCC’s December vote to repeal net neutrality rules, while their telecom counterparts lobbied more than $110 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The center also tracked total lobbying on net neutrality and found that since 2015, pro-net neutrality lobbyists tend to be the Big Tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Netflix especially, while the anti-net neutrality lobbyists tend to be the big cable and telecom providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.
Net neutrality lobbying dropped off after the December 2017 vote, but Silicon Valley-focused news publications and pro-net neutrality advocates do plenty of work to restore Title II-based net neutrality rules — with and without Silicon Valley’s help.
A 2014 report from IDG News found that organizations and think tanks on both sides of the debate weren’t very transparent about funding, and by 2019, not much changed.
For example, several organizations don’t disclose where their funding comes from at all, like New America’s pro-net neutrality think tank, the Open Technology Institute, or the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) which tends to oppose Title II-based net neutrality rules. However, the Center for Public Integrity’s Nonprofit Network tool shows that AEI tends to take donations from foundations unaffiliated with Big Cable, Big Telecom or Big Tech.
Here’s the breakdown:
Of those who oppose Title II-based net neutrality rules,
- Internet Innovation lists its members (AT&T is one) but doesn’t specify how much it gets from each.
- AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon are all members of Broadband for America (BfA), but BfA also doesn’t specify how much members contribute.
- Between the two of them, United Telecom and National Cable & Telecommunications Association donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-net neutrality think tank the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), over the past 10 years, according to data compiled by the Center for Public Integrity’s Nonprofit Network tool. ITIF doesn’t list funding or donors on its website.
- The R Street Institute, which advocates for bipartisan legislation on the issue, provides recent Form 990s on its website, but does not list donors.
- Comcast and the National Association of Broadcasters are two of Rep. Walden’s biggest donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Of those who advocate for Title II-based net neutrality rules,
- The EFF lists donors (a mix of foundations and Silicon Valley companies) but also doesn’t specify how much they give. According to data compiled by the Center for Public Integrity’s Nonprofit Network tool, the scandal-ridden Silicon Valley Community Foundation — whose major donors include Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen — gave thousands of dollars to the EFF in the last 10 years, but is not currently listed as a donor on the EFF’s website. (The foundation also gave thousands to AEI in 2014.) The EFF also receives an unspecified amount from Credo, a smaller telecom company trying to compete with the Big Four (AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint).
- Various Silicon Valley companies give to the EFF and up to $10,000 a year to FFTF. Bigger-name tech companies like Yelp and search engine DuckDuckGo give more than that. Credo also gives $50,000 or more a year to FFTF.
- Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft give at least $200,000 a year each to the Center for Democracy & Technology, which advocates for Title II-based net neutrality rules and filed an amicus brief in the lawsuit Mozilla v. FCC, in which Mozilla seeks to restore Title II-based net neutrality rules.
- Free Press provides an incomplete list of donors on its website, mostly foundations that advocate for social change and progress, but doesn’t specify how much they give.
- Rep. Doyle, despite introducing the Save the Internet Act, receives funding from Granite Telecommunications, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the National Cable Association. “Telecom services” as an industry is his top funder.
While funding pathways don’t necessarily or always determine how a think tank or advocacy group chooses a position on a particular issue, it does show what the funders — in this case, Big Cable, Big Telecom and Big Tech — think about net neutrality.
For some of these pro-net neutrality advocacy groups, like FFTF and Free Press, net neutrality is their main issue, and they don’t advocate for much else, which begs the question, what do they have to gain from bipartisan agreement and a final end to the net neutrality debate? Financially — not much.
While all the pro-net neutrality advocates and tech blogs use urgent language to spur engagement and describe net neutrality as a major issue for internet freedom and democracy itself, FFTF and Free Press use especially divisive language in their fundraising emails and headlines, accusing Republicans of wanting to “destroy the internet” with “fake net neutrality bills” and “tricks.”
The language is similar to Walden’s comment about achieving “real” net neutrality, and similar to strong comments from Democrats and Republicans alike on all kinds of political issues in attempts to curry favor with voters.
Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) pointed out that all members of Congress should be skeptical of political advocates whose organizations focus on a sole issue, simply because that means there’s a financial interest to keep a political issue spinning with no resolution.
“I think all Members of the Committee should be wary when an organization says compromise and bipartisanship is the enemy – especially if their financial interests are involved,” Long said at the House Energy & Commerce subcommittee hearing on the Save the Internet Act a few weeks ago.
Even though the Save the Internet Act has little chance of becoming law, House Democrats and Republicans can sit back knowing they’ve succeeded at least in heightening partisanship over the issue and using political messaging to oversimplify the debate.