article

09.11.10

The Tea Party's Corporate Ally

Tea Party activists are doing their best to kill Net Neutrality, convinced the FCC is plotting a takeover of the Internet. And companies like AT&T are repaying the favor with big donations.

Telecom companies have been throwing cash around Congress like there’s no tomorrow this election cycle, spending millions on lobbying and campaign contributions in the hopes of finally killing Net Neutrality. Now they’re getting a boost from an unlikely ally—the Tea Party movement.

Tea Party activists are doing their best to tip the scales toward the corporate behemoths.

Net Neutrality is the regulatory principle that all Internet traffic must be treated equally by service providers, meaning Verizon or AT&T can’t charge websites for faster speeds or block sites that provoke their ire. It’s the way the Internet has operated up until now and the FCC has tried to protect the status quo, but telecom giants have fought for years to block restrictions on broadband and mobile networks and may be in position to finally institute a tiered pricing system for accessing content. A federal court ruled the FCC did not have authority over the issue this year, opening the door for Verizon and Google to cut side deals among themselves, and the agency must now decide whether or not to try and reassert control while lawmakers debate whether to intervene as well.

Tea Party activists are doing their best to tip the scales toward the corporate behemoths, following conservative leaders' warnings that the FCC is plotting a government takeover of the Internet. Thirty-five Tea Party-affiliated groups recently signed on to a letter to the FCC in support of the telecom industry’s top priority. Big-money conservative organizations active in the Tea Party, including billionaire David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s Freedomworks, are leading campaigns against Net Neutrality. Tea Party caucus founder Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) calls Net Neutrality “ censorship of the Internet” while Rush Limbaugh slams it as “ the fairness doctrine of the Internet.”

AT&T’s PAC has spent more on political donations to Democrats and Republicans than any other group this election cycle and the House Tea Party Caucus has been no exception, receiving $350,000 from the corporation, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association told The Daily Beast he was unaware of any specific outreach to Tea Party organizations, but that NCTA had no comment on the matter either way. "I think there's a natural alignment on this issue," Dietz said, offering his personal take on the Tea Party's support for the industry's cause.

Phil Kerpen, Americans for Prosperity’s point man on Net Neutrality, credited Beck—who featured Kerpen multiple times on his show last year—with riling up Tea Partiers.

“He incorporated it into his whole narrative of issues to be concerned about and he really sets the agenda for the Tea Party,” Kerpen told The Daily Beast. “People look at this as another domino falling in terms of government control of a previously private industry.”

Beck may not have understood exactly what he was protesting at first—he bizarrely characterized Net Neutrality in Kerpen’s first appearance as the belief that Americans should not have to pay for Internet at all.

“I don't remember anybody saying in the 1930s that everybody had a right to radio and we gave away free radios for the government,” Beck said during the episode.

Despite these groups’ attempt to portray the issue as a socialist scheme, it wasn’t always such an ideological battle. In fact, Net Neutrality once drew significant backing from the right wing. Some of its most crucial defenders in Congress in recent years have been Republicans, such as Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and former representative Charles Pickering (R-MS).  

“About five years ago, you saw Republicans and Democrats in support of Net Neutrality,” Jonathan Askin, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and former FCC staffer in the Clinton administration. “Now you see Republicans trying to frame this as an Obama issue.”

Ironically, Net Neutrality supporters say, grassroots Tea Party groups, who often rely on simple amateur-run websites to organize their operations, are among those most likely to suffer from an Internet chopped into differently priced tiers. This explains why the most prominent coalition of Net Neutrality supporters, Save the Internet, counted the Christian Coalition, Gun Owners of America, and conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds (also known as Instapundit) among its inaugural members: They feared they might be snuffed out by slow load times or even censored by telecoms in favor of wealthier, more mainstream organizations. It’s hardly paranoia. In 2007, Verizon blocked NARAL Pro-Choice from using a text-messaging application—an area not covered by neutrality regulations—over its political content

These remaining conservative supporters are under increasing pressure to abandon their position. Recently, the Gun Owners of America left the coalition after right-wing bloggers accused Save the Internet of being a “neo-Marxist” operation, with GOA spokesman Erich Pratt declaring that "the issue has now become one of government control of the Internet, and we are 100 percent opposed to that." The Christian Coalition has withstood similar attacks from groups like Freedomworks.

In an interview over email, Reynolds described his support for Net Neutrality as “pretty lukewarm.” He recently submitted testimony to the FCC reiterating his opposition to tiered Internet pricing, but warned against eventual government overreach as well.

“I've gotten a modicum of heat [from conservatives], but I'm pretty thick-skinned,” he told The Daily Beast.

Correction: An earlier draft described Net neutrality as "the law of the land." There is no existing federal law codifying Net Neutrality and the article has been updated to clarify its status.

UPDATE: A spokesman for NCTA called to clarify that he had no official comment on his group's involvement with the Tea Party. The article has been updated accordingly.

Brian Ries also contributed reporting to this piece.

Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.