FCC hit with net neutrality lobbying blitz

Industry and advocacy groups have made hundreds of trips to the Federal Communications Commission in a desperate attempt to shape the sweeping proposal for net neutrality that is likely to be approved Thursday. 

A review by The Hill of about 750 filings with the FCC over the past year shows CTIA – The Wireless Association disclosed the most meetings or other ex parte communications with the agency on the issue, with 33. AT&T was a close second with 32.

{mosads}Both groups are fiercely opposed to the expanded plan to reclassify broadband Internet under rules governing traditional telephones. In particular, CTIA launched a sustained but failed lobbying effort to prevent that authority from extending to mobile broadband, which had previously been exempt.

Advocates for the stronger rules appear to have won out: the commission is expected to approve the expanded authority, which is meant to enforce rules requiring Internet service providers to treat all Web traffic equally. Those advocates paid plenty of visits to the FCC as well. 

“And that is important … in any debate like this, to be working on the inside in addition to the outside,” said Chris Lewis of Public Knowledge, a group that filed more than a dozen disclosures in favor of the rules.

While nearly 4 million public comments have been filed over the simmering debate, only a few dozen organizations and companies have been putting in regular face time with FCC officials during the rule-making process. 

In total, the top 10 companies and organizations accounted for about a third of all ex parte filings — disclosures that are required after advocates meet, have phone calls with or offer recommendations to FCC staff using any form of communication. 

“It’s not surprising that there are a concentrated number of activists who would come in repeatedly,” said former Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, who experienced this type of lobbying first-hand during his time at the commission. 

The list of top names is unsurprising, because most have been the public faces of the debate for the past year. A little less than 300 groups or individuals made at least one ex parte filing. 

Aside from AT&T and CTIA, the top groups lobbying against the rules were Verizon (21 disclosures), the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (20), NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association (19), the U.S. Telecom Association (15) and Comcast (14). 

The top organizations lobbying in favor of the stronger authority were the Open Technology Institute (26 disclosures), Free Press (25), Public Knowledge (19), Netflix (16), Level 3 Communications (15), Mozilla (14) and Comptel (13). 

Free Press President Craig Aaron said private lobbying was important to help develop the legal underpinnings, but advocates gave much of the credit to the public.

“If 4 million people just wrote in and said, ‘I want an open Internet, I want net neutrality,’ or even, ‘I want Title II,’ legally, Chairman [Tom] Wheeler could not have changed the proposal,” he said, highlighting the importance of detailed recommendations.

Barbara van Schewick, an influential Stanford law professor who has written extensively on the need for strong net neutrality rules, filed 18 disclosures, the most of any single individual. She said she saw her role as helping commissioners understand the facts and theories behind the issue, distancing herself from traditional advocacy. 

“The ex parte filings are important because they reveal the amount of activity by advocates at the FCC,” McDowell said, who is now a partner at Wiley Rein. “And they give us just a limited window into the substance of what is being discussed.” 

But he also stressed the burden is on advocates to file the disclosures: “I don’t want to make any allegations, but I think we can say with confidence that not every contact is disclosed.”

The count offers a general idea of the major players lobbying the FCC. But ex parte disclosures are an imperfect measure of face-to-face meetings between stakeholders and commission staff.

For example: While CTIA and AT&T made 33 and 32 filings, respectively, only 29 of CTIA’s and 23 of AT&T’s disclosures represented face-to-face meetings. Other disclosures included phone calls, emails or general recommendations or analyses sent electronically. Some meetings are also exempt, including discussions about process or timing.

On top of that, some individual filings can disclose more than one meeting, making it difficult to get an exact count without manually reading through the hundreds of documents one by one. Van Schewick, for example, used a single filing to disclose 10 separate meetings over a week in February. 

The Hill’s review counted only the number of disclosure filings going back to Jan. 15, 2014, the day after an appeals court threw out the old rules. 

The commissioners and their staff have entered the so-called sunshine period, during which meetings with advocates cease the week before a vote. The lobbying had ebbs and flows throughout the past year. 

Filings in the first part of 2014 averaged one or two per day up until May, when the filings peaked about 10 days before a vote on the draft proposal, which is significantly different than the one being considered Thursday. 

Filings spiked again on Oct. 30 of that year. That night, The Wall Street Journal reported that the FCC chairman was considering a hybrid option, which would rely partly on the Title II authority that advocates had wanted.

President Obama’s public recommendations for strong rules set off one of the largest flurries of activity. Seventy-four filings were made in the week after a YouTube video featuring the president went live.

That spike was topped only by the activity last week. In the days before the FCC’s sunshine period, a total of 77 filings were made in only three days.

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