Telecom giants spent $11m on first-quarter lobbying

Telecom giants spent $11m on first-quarter lobbying
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Major internet service providers spent more than $11 million on lobbying amid fights over privacy rules and a coming showdown over net neutrality.

Three of the largest telecom companies — AT&T, Verizon and Comcast — collectively spent a total of $11.2 million during the first three months of the year, according to disclosure forms filed to Congress on Thursday.

Of the three telecom giants, AT&T spent the most during the period, dishing out $4.6 million on lobbying. Its first-quarter spending was the sixth highest among all entities that filed disclosures.

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Comcast and Verizon spent $3.7 million and $2.9 million respectively. The sum total isn’t especially high for the companies for a three-month period, as they spent slightly more during the first quarter of 2016.

The companies all lobbied on a wide variety of issues, and the filings do not break down how much was spent on each topic.

But this year saw a heated public fight over an internet privacy rule passed by the Federal Communications Commission last year that would have prohibited internet service providers from using their customers’ data for advertising purposes.

AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, which declined to comment, were outspoken critics of the rules.

On April 3, days after the first quarter reporting period ended, President Trump signed a bill repealing those rules. The privacy repeal bill, though, was one of the biggest legislative achievements Republicans have accomplished in the Trump administration.

But polls also showed strong public support for the rules. And the repeal triggered a backlash among privacy activists, Democrats and consumer advocates, who argued Republicans had sold out their constituents’ privacy to broadband companies.

"There is literally no public support for this bill,” Craig Aron, CEO of the advocacy group Free Press, said after the bill was signed on April 3.

“Its only advocates are the nation's biggest phone, cable and Internet companies."

Republicans and the broadband industry argued that the rules unfairly subjected those companies to restrictions not faced by websites like Facebook and Google, even though they account for the majority of the online ad market.

In a blog post last month, Bob Quinn, AT&T’s top lobbyist, said consumers were being misled on what the repeal bill would actually mean.

“In truth, companies that collect and use the most customer information on the internet are not the ISPs but other internet companies, including operating system providers, web browsers, search engines, and social media platforms,” Quinn wrote. “And the FCC rules had nothing — literally nothing — to do with these companies or their practices."

Though the rules would not have applied to them, Facebook and Google both lobbied lawmakers on internet privacy issues last quarter, according to their filings.

Other issues that AT&T, Comcast and Verizon spent money lobbying on include rural broadband deployment, cybersecurity and tax reform. AT&T also worked to win over lawmakers on its proposed $85 billion merger with Time Warner.

The companies are all invested in the upcoming net neutrality fight as well.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has been shopping around a plan to undo the rules, which require internet service providers to treat all web traffic equally and are opposed by the telecom industry.

Internet providers and web companies are likely to square off over the issue, and Pai, who has sided with the former in opposition to the rules, said he has been soliciting input from both sides.

“I’m focused on trying to find the common ground here, so we can move forward in a way that benefits everybody,” Pai told reporters on Thursday.