Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and media outlets have been citing the work of The Free State Foundation (FSF) to argue against current net neutrality rules. But media have failed to note that the foundation is heavily backed by the telecommunications industry, which has lobbied against the 2015 open internet rules put in place by former President Barack Obama’s administration.
Net neutrality, as explained by the nonprofit group Free Press, is “the basic principle that prohibits internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon from speeding up, slowing down or blocking any content, applications or websites you want to use.”
Corporations and Republicans like Pai have been trying to dismantle those rules since President Donald Trump’s election. Pai delivered an April 26 speech detailing his desire to do that and tried to justify his plans by saying of the Communications Act title related to net neutrality: “According to one estimate by the nonprofit Free State Foundation, Title II has already cost our country $5.1 billion in broadband capital investment.”
Gizmodo staff writer Libby Watson, who previously wrote for the Sunlight Foundation and Media Matters, noted that Pai’s cost argument is bogus, writing that a Free Press analysis found that internet service providers' “capital expenditure increased more after net neutrality was passed than in the two years before it." She added that “ISPs themselves happily boast of investments when they’re not whining to regulators.”
FSF has been pushing pro-telecom research while receiving nearly half a million dollars from telecommunications trade associations in recent years.
CTIA, a group that represents “the U.S. wireless communications industry” and counts AT&T, T-Mobile USA, and Verizon Wireless as members, issued a statement praising Pai’s recent remarks. The group’s IRS 990 forms state that it gave FSF $63,750 in 2014 (the most recent year available), $58,750 in 2013, and $75,000 in 2012.
NCTA - The Internet Television Association, whose members include Charter Communications, Comcast Corp., and Cox Communications, gave the FSF $105,000 in 2014, $100,000 in 2013, and $85,000 in 2012. The group also praised Pai’s remarks.
A statement on the FSF website acknowledges that it receives contributions from “a wide variety of companies in the communications, information services, entertainment, and high-tech marketplaces, among others, as well as from foundations and many individuals.” In an email to Media Matters, a foundation spokesperson said, “All of our support is general support with none earmarked for net neutrality or any other designated project or issue.”
This has become a familiar pattern since Trump’s election. Outlets such as USA Today (repeatedly), The Hill, and Bloomberg have quoted May praising Trump’s plans to curtail net neutrality. And The Washington Times and The Hill have published opinion pieces by FSF employees arguing against regulation on the telecom industry without disclosing the group’s funding sources.
Pai, who formerly worked as a lawyer at Verizon, will speak at FSF’s Ninth Annual Telecom Policy Conference on May 31. Other speakers include executives from AT&T, Comcast, and CTIA. Pai also spoke at the group’s 10th anniversary luncheon last December and praised the group for being “a key voice fighting against the FCC’s regulatory overreach in areas such as net neutrality.”
The telecom industry and anti-net neutrality companies like AT&T have given funding to numerous organizations that criticize regulations and net neutrality in the media (often without disclosure). With the debate over net neutrality reignited, media outlets will have a lot of opportunities to correctly note the funding sources of media-friendly groups that are opposing consumer-friendly rules.