For years, one of the greasier lobbying and PR tactics by the telecom industry has been the use of minority groups to parrot awful policy positions. Historically, such groups are happy to take financing from a company like Comcast, in exchange for repeating whatever talking point memos are thrust in their general direction, even if the policy being supported may dramatically hurt their constituents. This strategy has played a starring role in supporting anti-consumer mega-mergers, killing attempts to make the cable box market more competitive, and efforts to eliminate net neutrality.
The goal is to provide an artificial wave of "support" for bad policies, used to then justify bad policy votes. And despite this being something the press has highlighted for the better part of several decades, the practice continues to work wonders. Hell, pretending to serve minority communities while effectively undermining them with bad internet policy is part of the reason Comcast now calls top lobbyist David Cohen the company's Chief Diversity Officer (something the folks at Comcast hate when I point it out, by the way).
Last week, we noted how Congress voted to kill relatively modest but necessary FCC privacy protections. You'd be hard pressed to find a single, financially-objective group or person that supports such a move. Even Donald Trump's most obnoxious supporters were relatively disgusted by the vote. Yet The Intercept notes that groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens and the OCA (Asian Pacific American Advocates) breathlessly urged the FCC to kill the rules, arguing that snoopvertising and data collection would be a great boon to low income families:
"The League of United Latin American Citizens and OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, two self-described civil rights organizations, told the FCC that “many consumers, especially households with limited incomes, appreciate receiving relevant advertising that is keyed to their interests and provides them with discounts on the products and services they use."
Of course, folks like Senator Ted Cruz then used this entirely-farmed support to insist there were "strenuous objections from throughout the internet community" at the creation of the rules, which simply wasn't true. Most people understood that the rules were a direct response to some reckless and irresponsible privacy practices at major ISPs -- ranging from charging consumers more to keep their data private, or using customer credit data to provide even worse customer support than they usually do. Yes, what consumer (minority or otherwise) doesn't want to pay significantly more money for absolutely no coherent reason?
It took only a little bit of digging for The Intercept to highlight what the real motivation for this support of anti-consumer policies was:
"OCA has long relied on telecom industry cash. Verizon and Comcast are listed as business advisory council members to OCA, and provide funding along with “corporate guidance to the organization.” Last year, both companies sponsored the OCA annual gala.
AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications and Verizon serve as part of the LULAC “corporate alliance,” providing “advice and assistance” to the group. Comcast gave $240,000 to LULAC between 2004 and 2012.
When a reporter asks these groups why they're supporting internet policies that run in stark contrast to their constituents, you'll usually be met with either breathless indignance at the idea that these groups are being used as marionettes, or no comment whatsoever (which was the case in the Intercept's latest report). This kind of co-opting still somehow doesn't get much attention in the technology press or policy circles, so it continues to work wonders. And it will continue to work wonders as the administration shifts its gaze from gutting privacy protections to killing net neutrality.
It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone
Today marks 28 years since I submitted my original proposal for the worldwide web. I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries. In many ways, the web has lived up to this vision, though it has been a recurring battle to keep it open. But over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool that serves all of humanity.
In his final public speech as the nation’s top telecom regulator, Wheeler warned that Republican efforts to weaken FCC rules ensuring that all internet content is treated equally will harm consumers, stifle online innovation, and threaten broadband industry competition.
“The open internet is the law of the land,” Wheeler declared during a speech at the DC offices of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “Tampering with the rules means taking away protections consumers and the online world enjoy today.”
Open internet advocates say strong net neutrality safeguards are needed to prevent internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon from creating online fast lanes for their own content or discriminating against rival services. The telecom giants, and their Republican allies in Congress, accuse the FCC of overstepping its authority and shackling their business models.
“To take those protections away at the request of a handful of ISPs threatens any innovation that requires connectedness and with it the productivity gains, job creation, and international competitiveness required for America’s economic growth,” Wheeler said. "It is time to keep moving forward. This is not the time to retreat and take things away.”
“Vigilance to protect that which Americans now enjoy must be our watchword.”
The FCC’s policy safeguarding net neutrality is the centerpiece of an ambitious pro-consumer agenda advanced by Wheeler over the last three years. Open internet advocates say that without net neutrality, hugely popular online video and communications services like Netflix and Skype could have been snuffed out by ISPs in favor of their own rival offerings.
“Those who build and operate networks have both the incentive and the ability to use the power of the network to benefit themselves even if doing so harms their own customers and the greater public interest,” Wheeler said. “Access to the network is what the new economy is built on, and it must not be taken away.”
Unfortunately for open internet advocates, the prospects for the FCC’s net neutrality policy are bleak under Trump’s administration. The president-elect’s FCC transition team is led by right-wing ideologues who are expected to recommend a new anti-net neutrality chairman to replace Wheeler. And Trump himself has taken to Twitter to disparage the FCC’s policy.
In his speech, Wheeler warned Republicans soon to be in control of the FCC that reversing the agency's net neutrality policy is “not a slam dunk” because of the “high hurdle, imposed by the Administrative Procedure Act, of a fact-based showing that so much has changed in just two short years that a reversal is justified.”
Meanwhile, in Congress, Republicans are already scheming to kneecap the FCC’s policy. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who was recently tapped by the GOP to be the new chairman of the House telecom subcommittee, has described net neutrality as a “socialistic” Obama plot to take over the internet.
Blackburn, who has received mountains of campaign cash from the telecom industry since first being elected in 2002, has been trying to kill net neutrality for years. In the coming months, she will finally get her chance, possibly by working with other lawmakers to pass new legislation that claims to protect net neutrality, while actually gutting the FCC’s policy.
Outgoing FCC Chairman Wheeler, who has written books about the Civil War, concluded his remarks by quoting from Abraham Lincoln’s famous first inaugural address: “While the people retain their virtue, and vigilance, no administration … can very seriously injure the government, in the short space of four years.”
“The vigilance Lincoln spoke of means we must be alert to name-only, so-called net neutrality policies that actually retreat from the protections that exist today,” Wheeler said. “Vigilance to protect that which Americans now enjoy must be our watchword.”