Hired Guns

The Campaign Cash That Can Kill the Open Internet

All but two of the 31 co-sponsors of a House bill to kill net neutrality received thousands from telecoms in just the last election.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

“The Internet Freedom Act” is a House bill intended to destroy newly instituted Net Neutrality rights. And of the bill's 31 co-sponsors, all but two of them received money from a major telecom or its lobby in 2014 alone.

The 29 co-sponsors received over $800,000 from AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and their lobby, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA).

The legislation would invalidate rules instituted by the FCC last week that declared the Internet a public utility and disallowed telecoms from forcibly slowing or blocking Web traffic to competitors, or separating the Web into artificial, cable package-like tiers for lower-paying users.

The bill was brought to the House floor by Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and 30 Republican colleagues. In the last year, Blackburn received $87,000 from those Internet service providers, or ISPs, and their lobby, through her campaign committee and her political action committee, MARSHA PAC. This included a maximum $25,000 donation from AT&T.

Five other co-sponsors received $50,000 or more in the same cycle. An FEC mandate caps donations at $10,000 per candidate for each company (or $25,000 for those with PACs).

The NCTA spent $196,500—or 28 percent of its total Republican House spending budget—funding just 23 co-sponsors of this bill. There are 245 Republicans in the House, and the NCTA donated campaign money to 126 in the 2014 election cycle.

Still, the NCTA says that the Internet Freedom Act “isn't a bill that we are promoting.” When asked if the lobbying group agrees with the premise of the bill, NCTA VP of Communications and Digital Strategy Brian Dietz replied, “Essentially, yes.”

“Title II reclassification (which declares the Internet a public utility) is heavy regulation of the Internet that goes way beyond the reasonable net neutrality protections that have widespread support,” Dietz told The Daily Beast.

The only two co-sponsors of the bill to not receive campaign funding from an Internet service provider in 2014, John J. Duncan Jr. (R-TN) and Walter Jones (R-NC), were two of the last three representatives to sign on as co-sponsors, according to Congress.gov.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) received $81,500 in contributions from Internet service providers and their lobby in 2014. Brett Guthrie (R-KY) also took in $59,000 and Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) received $51,500

“This is a Frankenstein bill that’s had previous lives and has been shuttled back into the hands of Marsha Blackburn,” says Tim Karr, the senior director of strategy at Free Press, a nonprofit that advocates for Internet consumer rights. “It’s called the ‘Internet Freedom Act,’ but it’s cynically designed to take freedoms out of the hands of Internet users and put them in the hands of the companies that bankroll people like Marsha Blackburn’s political campaigns.”

Karr argues that the nearly million-dollar infusion in the last election cycle alone is “a drop in the bucket” compared to both how much money Internet service providers would have to gain from a tiered, Net Neutrality-free Internet, and also compared to lifetime campaign spending.

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“This is a battle that’s been going on for two decades. In that time, [the telecommunications industry] has spent close to a billion dollars lobbying against this sort of ruling,” says Karr. “If you look at [Blackburn’s] career numbers, she’s among the most highly paid members of the House by telecoms. And this is all for something that would undermine consumer rights.”

The bill has virtually no chance of passing. President Obama insisted in this year’s State of the Union Address and in recent public comments he'd veto any legislation that would allow ISPs to block traffic or create a speed toll for competitors or consumers on the Web. This legislation would likely bar the FCC from the ability to enforce punishments for—let alone seek out wrongdoers of—that kind of anti-competitive behavior.

“I think that [the telecom lobby] is going to have a number of initiatives to try to kill this FCC ruling. The courts are one other obvious path,” says Karr. “But this specific bill certainly doesn’t have a chance.”