New Report: How telecom companies’ lobbying, political influence has shaped the digital divide

A new report from Common Cause in partnership with the Communications Workers of America examines lobbying and political spending by the largest internet service providers (ISPs) and their trade associations and how these activities have shaped the digital divide.

Broadband connectivity has never been more important to a functioning 21st century democracy than it is today, as the nation continues to face an unprecedented emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, millions of households remain on the wrong side of the digital divide as a result of market failure. The pandemic has exposed the disparities in connectivity too many Americans face today, particularly for marginalized communities—where students have had to turn to parking lot Wi-Fi to do schoolwork, and households have been left behind in the vaccination sign-up process, which has moved primarily to online formats.

The report presents lobbying and campaign finance data compiled by OpenSecrets.org for the 15 largest, most influential ISPs and related trade associations. It finds that these corporations spent more than $234 million on lobbying and federal elections during the 116th Congress—an average of more than $320,000 a day. This spending has stymied progress on issues like network resiliency, increased broadband speeds, and price transparency that are critical to closing the digital divide.

“For years, Congressional efforts to pass legislation needed to address the nation’s long-standing disparities in connectivity have been stopped dead in their tracks in part because of aggressive industry lobbying and the oversized political influence of the largest ISPs,” said Yosef Getachew, Common Cause Media and Democracy Program Director. “Now more than ever, policymakers must pass reforms that not only close the digital divide but also hold ISPs accountable for providing high-speed, reliable, and affordable broadband.”

“Our political system is rigged in favor of hedge funds and wealthy shareholders who demand short-term profits over the lasting health of our economy. To satisfy Wall Street, ISPs and trade associations are spending millions fighting legislation that would help close the digital divide,” said CWA Senior Director for Government Affairs Shane Larson. “The impact this has on low-income communities and rural residents is devastating. Telecom companies are limiting deployment of fiber optic broadband to wealthier neighborhoods and monopoly cable is overcharging for subpar service. It’s time broadband workers and customers get some accountability. That has to come from Congress and the FCC.”

The report concludes with a series of recommendations to help close the digital divide and reduce the undue influence of big special interest money in politics:

  • Passage of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which takes significant steps to address all aspects of the digital divide, including broadband access, affordability, and digital equity.

  • Support for the FCC’s Lifeline program through Universal Service Fund reform and permanent funding from Congress for digital inclusion activities, such as digital literacy training and access to connected devices that help households successfully adopt broadband.

  • Restore Net Neutrality and the FCC’s authority over broadband.

  • Pass the For the People Act to adopt important lobbying reforms, including expansion of the scope of reportable lobbying to include paid counseling services in support of lobbying contacts (e.g., strategy consulting) and a reduction in the threshold percentage of time spent lobbying for a client that triggers disclosure from 20% to 10%.

  • Amendment of the Lobbying Disclosure Act to more explicitly require quarterly lobbying reports to disclose specific bills lobbied on and require lobbyists to disclose the specific congressional offices and committees contacted.

  • Amend federal law to require lobbyists and their clients who otherwise meet the lobbying registration and reporting thresholds to disclose grassroots lobbying expenditures.

Read the full report here.

Links:

New Report: How lobbying and political influence by broadband gatekeepers has shaped the digital divide (Common Cause, July 19, 2021)