Watch a tech entrepreneur explain why millions of Americans oppose the FCC's rollback of net neutrality
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Don’t give in to the spin, stick to the facts, and provide viewers with some sense of the stakes
UPDATE: As expected, the commissioners of the FCC voted 3-2 along party lines to rescind the net neutrality protections instituted by the agency in February 2015. Internet advocacy groups responded to the vote by announcing legal challenges.
Broadcast and cable news programs have been largely silent on the topic of net neutrality in the weeks since the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission (FCC) indicated its intention to rescind Obama-era consumer protections codifying a free and open internet. With the FCC set to begin deconstructing those regulations today, news coverage must provide viewers with enough context to make clear the stakes of this dramatic policy shift.
The FCC’s commissioners, a majority of whom are Republican appointees, are expected to vote “along party lines to scrap Obama-era net neutrality rules” during its December 14 meeting, marking “a huge victory for the big internet service providers” who have sought to dismantle the consumer protections governing how customers and content-providers interact online. According to a December 12 report from Reuters, three major net neutrality advocates -- Public Knowledge, Common Cause, and Free Press -- have given up attempting to convince Republican-appointed FCC commissioners to reconsider their decision and, with little reason to expect a legislative solution from an unproductive Republican majority in Congress, are “preparing to turn to litigation as a last resort.” Another major net neutrality advocacy group, the Internet Association -- which represents technology giants and content providers like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft -- is also weighing possible legal challenges to the FCC’s ruling, according to the report.
The FCC’s Trump-appointed chairman, Ajit Pai, spent the days leading up to the December 14 vote doing a tour of friendly conservative media outlets to promote his anti-neutrality agenda without facing any pushback from consumer advocates and regulatory experts. Chairman Pai argued that his move to install a so-called “light touch” regulatory framework is just a return to the way the internet worked pre-2015, never mentioning that net neutrality was instituted that year in response to worries that the free and open internet Americans had come to rely on might soon disappear. (Pai’s right-wing media blitz neglected to mention his previous work on behalf of Verizon, one of the telecommunications conglomerates pushing to unwind net neutrality.)
Broadcast and cable news programs, which Media Matters demonstrated have been conspicuously absent from net neutrality discussions, need to emphasize for their audience what is at stake in the ongoing net neutrality fight. Despite the overall inadequate coverage, there have been several examples over the past month demonstrating how news programs can inform viewers, advance the discussion, and give time to expert perspectives.
On the December 13 edition of MSNBC Live, host Stephanie Ruhle brought on guest Jeff Jarvis who said that rescinding net neutrality would “enable the oligopoly of cable and telephone” to control content on the internet while showcasing Pai's inconsistent approach to regulating the service providers he is aligned with and content producers who might not share his political perspective. Two weeks earlier, during the November 23 edition of MSNBC Live, host Ali Velshi and tech entrepreneur Michael Fertik engaged in a similarly fruitful discussion that provided viewers with specific examples of how telecommunications companies might take advantage of consumers in a world without mandatory net neutrality:
During the November 26 edition of CNN’s Reliable Sources, host Brian Stelter and New York Times reporter David Gelles also delved into the net neutrality debate, and again stressed the ideological inconsistency of the Trump administration’s position. Gelles pointed out that Trump’s threat to block a proposed media merger by citing concerns about competition and consumer choice was directly at odds with his FCC chairman’s decision to entrust the same media titans as caretakers of the free and open internet:
Consumer advocates have long been concerned that an internet unprotected by net neutrality could devolve into a maze of predatory and expensive consumer traps similar to what we see in countries without net neutrality, which do not provide consumers with the same protections Americans benefit from today. The Republican-led FCC has already demonstrated that it plans to use its time during the Trump era empowering corporate interests, fighting for right-wing pet priorities, and ignoring American consumers. Mainstream news outlets need to start making that story clear.
The flagship morning news shows on broadcast and cable news covered net neutrality for less than four minutes combined
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today voted to repeal net neutrality rules, which will allow internet service providers to block or slow down service and access to websites, or charge fees for faster service.
If you weren’t aware of this potentially monumental change that will significantly impact your internet access, that’s because the major news networks mostly haven’t been doing their jobs.
Hours before today’s FCC repeal vote, the flagship morning news shows on the six major broadcast and cable news networks devoted an embarrassingly small amount of time to covering net neutrality. Relative silence from the major news networks on net neutrality is unfortunately nothing new, as Media Matters has previously documented.
This morning, most of the morning news programs either completely ignored the impending move or cursorily mentioned it for a few seconds at a time. Among the cable news networks, Fox News’ Fox & Friends spent just 52 seconds on net neutrality. MSNBC’s Morning Joe and CNN's New Day did not cover the story at all. (It was covered for about half a minute on MSNBC's early morning show, First Look, and roughly one minute on CNN's early morning show, Early Start. After the conclusion of Morning Joe, MSNBC has been covering net neutrality in detail on MSNBC Live.)
The broadcast networks also spent scant time on the issue: ABC’s Good Morning America devoted just 14 seconds to net neutrality and NBC’s Today didn’t mention it at all. CBS This Morning led the pack with two and a half minutes of coverage this morning, and was the only one of the flagship morning programs to run a full segment on the topic.
Since November 28, cable news networks have mostly given net neutrality minimal coverage: approximately five minutes each on CNN and Fox News and almost 17 minutes on MSNBC, which has consistently devoted the most coverage to net neutrality in recent weeks. Broadcast networks have been mostly crickets, too. Since November 28, NBC has devoted about eight minutes to covering net neutrality while CBS has spent close to five minutes, and ABC has devoted just 14 seconds to the topic -- the brief mention on Good Morning America this morning.
Since November 20, when news first broke about the planned repeal, the six networks have devoted a combined nearly one hour and 53 minutes to the story; although, MSNBC alone has accounted for more than one hour and three minutes of that total coverage time. The vast majority of the coverage occurred before November 28.
Under Trump, the Republican-led FCC has already done significant damage to the local news landscape and paved the way for major corporate consolidation in media -- but repealing net neutrality seems to be its most unpopular action yet. A new survey found that 83 percent of Americans don’t approve of the FCC’s repeal proposal -- including 3 out of 4 Republicans. Even the FCC’s own chief technology officer warned against the move. And 18 attorneys general had called for a delay in the vote due to widespread fraudulent comments during the public comment period.
That’s probably why chairman Ajit Pai’s media tour in the days before the net neutrality repeal has largely targeted conservative and far-right media that may provide a (marginally) more friendly audience. Since November 21, Pai has given four cable news interviews: two with Fox & Friends, one with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, and a fourth with conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt at MSNBC. He did not give an interview to any of the three major broadcast networks. (Pai also seemingly promoted the repeal by appearing in an embarrassing video at The Daily Caller along with renowned plagiarist Benny Johnson and a Pizzagate conspiracy theorist.)
It’s also why major news networks’ relative silence on such a deeply unpopular and hugely consequential action like the FCC’s repeal vote is a net benefit to the commission and to major corporations -- and keeps an informed public from fighting back.
Media Matters searched the Snapstream database of television video transcripts for any mentions of “net neutrality,” "Federal Communications Commission,” or “FCC” from November 20 through December 14, 2017 on ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight with David Muir, and This Week with George Stephanopoulos; CBS’s This Morning, Evening News, and Face the Nation with John Dickerson; NBC’s Today, Nightly News with Lester Holt, and Meet the Press with Chuck Todd; and all-day programming (through 9am on December 14) on the three major cable news networks -- CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC. We also searched the Nexis transcript database and the iQ Media transcript database for the same terms. Since November 23 was Thanksgiving, some networks altered their regularly scheduled programming on that day.
We included any segment about FCC chair Ajit Pai’s proposal or the FCC vote scheduled for December 14 following Politico’s November 20 report on the proposal. We timed all such segments from start to finish, and excluded any breaks to other news or to commercials. We also included portions of multi-topic segments when two or more speakers discussed the FCC chair’s proposal or the scheduled vote on the proposal with one another. In those instances, we only timed the relevant discussion and not the entire segment. We excluded passing mentions of the proposal or its vote, and we excluded teasers of upcoming segments about the proposal or its vote.
Note: This post has been updated to reflect that the FCC officially moved to repeal net neutrality rules in a 3-2 vote on December 14.
Cable and broadcast news networks have given scant coverage to the FCC’s planned December 14 vote to repeal net neutrality regulations. Between November 28 and December 12, the six major cable and broadcast news networks combined devoted roughly 27 minutes to the story.
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In the eight days after news broke that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wants to fully repeal net neutrality rules, cable and broadcast news networks -- aside from MSNBC -- have given the story very little coverage.
Ajit Pai knows he has an ally at Fox News
Ajit Pai, the Republican-appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), enjoyed a lighthearted interview on President Donald Trump’s favorite news program this morning in which he was allowed to spin the reasons he is rescinding Obama-era consumer protections guaranteeing fair and open access to the internet.
During a November 22 interview with Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy allowed Pai to dubiously defend his plan to repeal net neutrality standards that were implemented in 2015 as a win for “the internet economy in America” and for nearly 300 million internet users in the United States. Doocy presented his guest with easy questions, which Pai quickly deflected with talking points claiming that his move to gut net neutrality was merely a return to the same “free and open internet” expected by consumers “before these regulations started.”
But Pai’s move to end net neutrality, which classified high speed internet as a public utility, is widely viewed as a win for the telecommunications giants. It is also a big win for conservative media, including Fox News, which vilified net neutrality during the Obama administration.
Internet advocates warn that service providers may soon charge extra to unlock faster access to popular websites and online content, as is already the case in some countries, but Pai brushed off those concerns as “a false fear” while passing responsibility for regulating these predatory business practices to the Federal Trade Commission. At no point during the show did Doocy ask Pai about an investigation spearheaded by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, which uncovered what Schneiderman called “a massive scheme” to flood the FCC with anti-regulatory comments supportive of dismantling net neutrality using personal information stolen from thousands of American citizens.
Pai’s move to gut net neutrality, which TV morning shows barely covered as the news broke, is not the first time the chairman has used the FCC to fulfill the demands of media outlets that have a direct line to the White House. In February, Pai imposed unnecessary cuts to an extension of the Lifeline program (which Fox News and host Sean Hannity assailed for years as so-called “Obamaphones”) that provided internet subsidies to qualifying low-income Americans. In April, he moved to ease merger restrictions that could materially benefit Trump-aligned Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group, and in the months since, the commission has made several additional changes to FCC rules that directly aid Sinclair’s conservative local news takeover.
Only CBS This Morning reported on the FCC commissioner's plan to overturn Obama-era net neutrality protections
Cable and broadcast morning shows virtually ignored reports that the Republican-appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Ajit Pai, is expected to reveal his plan to gut net neutrality regulations this week.
According to the internet advocacy organization Free Press, net neutrality 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." In 2015, the FCC enacted regulations protecting net neutrality, "reclassif[ying] high-speed Internet as a telecommunications service rather than an information one, subjecting providers to regulation under Title II of the Communications Act."
But as Politico reported on November 20, FCC Chairman Pai, an appointee of President Donald Trump, plans to share a scheme with his fellow commissioners today to dismantle the regulations. The commission is expected to vote in December on the plan, which reportedly "would jettison rules that prohibit internet service providers from blocking or slowing web traffic or creating so-called paid internet fast lanes."
On November 21, morning news shows failed to inform their audiences about the threat to a free and open internet. CBS This Morning was the only show to feature a report on the development. One guest on MSNBC's Morning Joe briefly mentioned the expected rule change, but the hosts didn't engage with the comment and never brought up the story themselves. There was no mention at all of net neutrality from CNN's New Day, Fox News' Fox & Friends, ABC's Good Morning America, or NBC's Today.
From CBS This Morning:
GAYLE KING (HOST): The New York Times says the FCC is planning a repeal of net neutrality rules created during the Obama era. The proposal is expected to be unveiled later today. Internet service providers would no longer be required to give equal access to all content. It would permit them to slow web traffic or charge more to view certain content. FCC commissioners are expected to back the proposal in December. The FCC declined to comment on this.
The move from the FCC was not unforeseeable; in April, Pai announced plans to undo open-internet rules. And, as Wired detailed, "Pai has narrowed the scope of the rules since taking over as chair in January":
In February, for example, he ended an investigation into whether AT&T and Verizon used data limits for anticompetitive purposes, effectively ruling that the two companies could exempt their own video services from customers' data caps but still charge for data used by their competitors’ services.
Media Matters searched SnapStream for mentions of “neutrality” on the November 21 editions of ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS’ CBS This Morning, NBC’s Today, CNN’s New Day, Fox News’ Fox & Friends, and MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
Internet troll Jack Posobiec appeared at a congressional press conference on net neutrality and demanded that the Democratic senators speaking at the event publicly say whether they disavowed “satanic” internet pornography. Although Posobiec failed to draw comments from the elected officials, the self-proclaimed “journalist” succeeded in displaying his deceptive “reporting” tactics.
On July 12, Posobiec waltzed through a crowd including members of the press, distributing flyers that thanked the assembled Democratic senators for “protecting our quality violent porn content” and featured screenshots of Google searches for violent, “satanic,” and rape videos featured on popular porn website RedTube. The flyers also contained logos and imagery that suggested the organizers of January’s Women’s March endorsed the sentiment of the handout.
— Brendan Bordelon (@BrendanBordelon) July 12, 2017
In a pair of live streams posted to Posobiec’s Periscope profile, the former Rebel Media reporter can be seen lurking around the press conference, handing out flyers and conversing with attendees. One audience member asked him to confirm that the flyers were sarcastic, to which he responded, “Of course.” After the speeches concluded, Posobiec heckled Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and later claimed to have “triggered” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) to call him a “liar” and quote the Ninth Commandment at him. Posobiec was immediately mocked online.
ritual satanic porn is the best, and it's clearly real, like snuff films. https://t.co/poei8TdOKz
— hannah gais (@hannahgais) July 12, 2017
Stunned by this extremely real flyer found by the guy who constantly makes things up https://t.co/QDKKFI2QVM
— Will Sommer (@willsommer) July 12, 2017
Posobiec’s stunt is another example of the extreme lengths he is willing to go to deceive his audience and troll news media. In June, Posobiec and fellow right-wing troll Laura Loomer interrupted a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in New York City that depicted a character resembling President Donald Trump being assassinated (in line with the plot of the play). Posobiec screamed at members of the audience, calling them “Nazis” who are “inciting terrorists” and have “the blood of [Rep.] Steve Scalise” on their hands, referring to a shooting that injured a congressman.
It’s also been reported that Posobiec was the source of a “Rape Melania” sign at an anti-Trump rally, and he has claimed he incited an “assassinate Trump” chant in a group of protestors so he could film them. The media troll, who was briefly given temporary White House press credentials, was also a major proponent of the debunked “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory and was removed from a Washington, D.C., restaurant after he filmed a child’s birthday party during the peak of the hysteria surrounding the theory’s allegations that an underground sex ring was being operated beneath a pizza parlor.
Posobiec’s latest attempted stunt failed, but he remains an active disinformation smear merchant who occasionally succeeds at duping media into regurgitating his fabricated controversies, such as in the instance of the “Rape Melania sign” (which became a trending topic on Twitter) and the Shakespeare play disruption (which made national news). Reporters should view Posobiec as the fraudulent liar that he is and dismiss any temptation to consider him a credible source.
Writers backed by telecommunications money who are looking to attack current net neutrality rules have found an easy venue to place op-eds and hide their funding: the editorial page of The Hill.
In 2015, the FCC enacted net neutrality rules that protect consumers by prohibiting “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.” In a gift to the telecom industry, Republican chairman Ajit Pai last month unveiled his plans to undo those open-internet rules.
The telecom industry has heavily funded organizations that seek to turn public and lawmaker opinions against those Obama-era rules. The sector’s lead trade and lobbying groups include NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, CTIA, and Broadband for America.
The Hill, a D.C.-based outlet that caters to Capitol Hill, has become a favorite dumping ground for telecom-backed opinion pieces that benefit their corporate funders. Editor-in-Chief Bob Cusack told Media Matters in a May 26 email that “oped writers sign official forms that require them to disclose any such funding and/or conflict of interests.” After Media Matters sent him a list of op-eds that had undisclosed conflicts of interest, Cusack said the publication would look into the matter. A follow-up question on the status of that review has not been answered as of posting.
Here are eight recent examples of The Hill running anti-net neutrality pieces without disclosing the telecom financing behind the writers. (Funding searches were conducted through the Center for Public Integrity's Nonprofit Network tool.)
Harold Ford Jr., honorary chairman of Broadband for America, wrote a May 24 opinion piece praising Pai for trying “to repeal burdensome public utility regulations.” Broadband for America is backed by telecommunications companies like AT&T and associations such as CTIA and NCTA. Ford’s limited liability company received $345,000 in consulting fees from Broadband for America for the fiscal year ending in June 2015, according to the group’s IRS 990 form.
Theodore Bolema and Michael Horney, who work for the Free State Foundation, wrote a May 15 opinion piece pushing for “light touch regulation of broadband.” The piece positively cited CTIA. Free State Foundation has received funding from NCTA and CTIA.
Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, wrote a May 10 opinion piece headlined “American innovation is the winner as the FCC tackles net neutrality” that specifically praised telecom companies. Citizens Against Government Waste has received funds from NCTA.
Paige Agostin, a senior policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity, wrote a May 5 opinion piece praising Pai for issuing “a welcome response to an all-too-typical exercise in regulatory overreach.” Americans for Prosperity has received funds from NCTA.
Thomas M. Lenard, a senior fellow and president emeritus at the Technology Policy Institute, wrote an April 28 opinion piece which praised Pai and defended internet service providers against concerns over content blocking. Lenard’s group states on its website that its supporters include AT&T, Charter, Comcast, and NCTA. The group has received funds from NCTA and CTIA, according to its 990 forms.
Jonathon Paul Hauenschild, director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Task Force on Communications & Technology, wrote an April 28 piece attacking the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules. ALEC has received funding from NCTA and CTIA.
Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI), wrote an April 27 opinion piece praising Pai for helping to eliminate “harmful regulation." IPI has received funds from NCTA and MyWireless.org (now ACTwireless), which is a project of CTIA.
Doug Brake, a senior telecommunications policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), wrote an April 27 opinion piece praising Pai for “moving in the right direction” with his net neutrality plans. The ITIF has received funding from NCTA and CTIA.
It wouldn't be the first time Posobiec infiltrated a protest.
Noted "alt-right" troll and hoaxster Jack Posobiec took to Periscope on May 18 to highlight a group of supposed “protesters” at a net neutrality event in Washington, D.C. who were “holding signs calling for bans on Breitbart, Drudge, and Infowars.” Posobiec has previously been caught staging protests in attempt to characterize his political opponents as extreme.
On May 18, Posobiec tweeted a video and link to a report about a net neutrality protest in Washington, D.C., specifically highlighting a group of masked protesters who recognized Posobiec and appeared to be “holding signs calling for bans on Breitbart, Drudge, and Infowars.” The claim was quickly picked up by right-wing outlets such as Infowars, Gateway Pundit, and Washington Free Beacon.
— Jack Posobiec (@JackPosobiec) May 18, 2017
Hysterical Net Neutrality Protesters Want to Ban Drudge, Infowars, and Breitbart https://t.co/E3QY2jMxVs
— Jack Posobiec (@JackPosobiec) May 18, 2017
Posobiec, known for pushing conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate, also has a history of arranging inflammatory chants and signage that are meant to paint progressives as extremists. In January, BuzzFeed’s Joseph Bernstein reported that a “Rape Melania” sign seen at an anti-Trump rally was “the culmination of a disinformation campaign by Posobiec and others intended to paint the anti-Trump rallies as violent and out of control,” and “according to a source, it is Posobiec himself holding the ‘Rape Melania’ sign in the photographs.” Bernstein added that Posobiec “claimed that he’d started an ‘assassinate Trump’ chant to goad protesters into copying him, with the intention of filming them.”
UPDATE: In a conversation with Media Matters on May 19, Matt Wood, the policy director for Free Press, one of the nation's leading independent net neutrality advocacy organizations and a convener of the rally, described his interaction with the supposed protesters.
As explained by Wood, the masked protesters who were holding signs advocating for the "banning" of right-wing sites immediately raised the alarm of rally goers who have been involved in the struggle for net neutrality. Not only were the protesters "wooden" and seemingly playing caricatures that served as "dog whistles for conservative media," as detailed by Wood, but the messages and chants they used -- especially their focus on banning conservative websites -- have nothing to do with the actual goals of net neutrality. Instead, as recounted by Wood, who both interacted with the supposed protesters and observed their interviews with The Daily Caller and Rebel Media, they offered nonsensical justifications for their signs calling for Infowars and similar right-wing sites to be banned. And they countered some who questioned their off-message signage with the following claim: "I oppose the fascists. If you don't agree, you're a fascist."
When Wood attempted to question the protesters in order to determine who they were and to explain that their calls to ban conservative sites were not aligned with net neutrality, they mostly refused to identify themselves or their organization, although one did respond to Wood's question about "who sent" them by saying it was "a woman."
When staffers from Media Matters who were present at the rally attempted to interview four of the other supposed protesters, they declined. Two of the protesters said they "were waiting for someone." At another point, Media Matters filmed a staffer for Rebel Media (wearing a Rebel shirt and carrying other Rebel paraphernalia) following the fake protesters and taking pictures. You can see that in the background of this first video, and in the second video we also filmed as one of the fake protesters was confronted:
UPDATE #2: After publication, Harold Feld, Senior Vice President at Public Knowledge, another of the rally's participants, contacted Media Matters and stated that he too approached the supposed protesters and they refused to identify themselves. When Feld asked if he could interview them, they said "we don't give interviews," and when he asked for their names the same protester said "we don't give names." Feld asked who the protesters were with, and the reply was "we don't talk to press." Below, watch video of Feld call out the "trolls" in a speech at the rally and point out that their bizarre calls for censorship of right-wing sites were not only antithetical to the goals of the net neutrality movement, but were also part of a pattern of suspicious behavior meant to discredit efforts to keep the internet open to all:
HAROLD FELD: First, I got to point out, and I hope everybody will take a look and get some airtime to the guys with the "ban Drudge" and the "ban hate speech online." If trolls could cosplay, this would be -- God, they got it all, they've got the bandanas, they've got the angry looks, but guys, you are all confused. If you want to ban speech, you need the pro-[FCC Chairman Ajit] Pai rally. Because, when you get rid of Title II, then anyone can discriminate. God knows, I hates me all the racism on 4chan and all that stuff, but I think it's a damn good thing that nobody can cut it off, because I know everybody here, especially those who have worked in civil rights, who have worked for the betterment of people, understand that it would be like that to get big companies -- "responsible" companies -- to cut us off as hate speech or disruptive.
But here's the funny thing: We've had, for a couple of weeks now, an ID-stealing spambot filing forged comments -- pro-Pai, forged comments -- to the FCC. If you look on your Twitter feeds, you can see Pai's staff are tweeting up a storm about our trolls over here. Where the hell is action on an actual illegal hack of the FCC? I'm telling you, what did Trump do when Putin came to hack our democracy? He said, "well, I certainly hope they found Hillary's emails," and when he's in trouble for hacking our democracy, Trump's like, "no one has been treated worse than me."
So, I've got to say to Chairman Pai and his staff, who are real busy and deeply, deeply concerned that the trolls showed up at the wrong rally, because, of course, there is no pro-Pai rally, because nobody else likes that plan. But, word one about an actual federal crime? Word one about pro-Pai supporters hacking, according to Pai, the comments system so that people opposed to his giveaway of the internet to the companies instead of to us, letting us say what we want to say, that, he doesn't have any time to pursue? That's a crime, man. That's a hack.
Numerous opinion pieces running in publications like The Hill and Washington Examiner share two things in common: praise for Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposed rollback of net neutrality rules, and millions in undisclosed funding from the telecommunications industry for the writers’ organizations.
Pai announced in an April 26 speech that he wants to roll back net neutrality rules that President Barack Obama’s administration put in place in 2015. Those open internet rules mean that internet service providers (ISPs) “should provide us with open networks — and shouldn’t block or discriminate against any applications or content that ride over those networks.”
Advocates for open internet like the nonprofit group Free Press heavily criticized Pai and President Donald Trump for attempting “to erase one of the most important public interest victories ever at the agency” and “leave people everywhere at the mercy of the phone and cable companies.”
Proponents of Pai’s open internet rollback are supporting the chairman in the op-ed pages of publications like The Hill and Washington Examiner. But their pro-telecom pieces don’t disclose that they have received heavy funding from the telecommunications industry, which has been aggressively lobbying to overturn the 2015 rules.
Leading organizations that have lobbied to overturn the rules include NCTA – The Internet & Television Association and CTIA, a group that represents “the U.S. wireless communications industry.” They have both contributed heavily to groups which are now praising Pai’s rollback of open internet rules.
Here are six examples where outlets published anti-net neutrality pieces without noting that the writers’ organizations have received telecom funding. (Searches were conducted via The Center for Public Integrity’s Nonprofit Network tool of available IRS filings.)
Media Matters previously documented that media outlets have been promoting the anti-net neutrality Free State Foundation without noting it has received heavily financial backing from the telecommunications industry.
The FCC Is Making Right-Wing Media Dreams Come True Under Trump
With the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) now in Republican hands, it has moved quickly to reverse rules that guarantee free and open access to the internet, giving conservative media outlets exactly what they have been asking for.
During an April 26 speech, Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai proposed rolling back a key provision of the 2015 net neutrality rules enacted by his agency, citing research from an industry-funded front-group to support his claim that open internet protections are a burden on internet service providers. Pai claimed the common carrier rules that enshrined net neutrality were "regulations from the Great Depression meant to micromanage Ma Bell" that should not be applied to the internet. The Wall Street Journal reported that the rollback of net neutrality rules would allow internet service providers to create preferential treatment of data speeds for certain users and corporations linked across their networks. The Journal noted that the Internet Association -- a trade group representing many content providers, including Facebook, Google, and Netflix -- is gearing up to oppose the proposed changes:
Critics said Mr. Pai’s changes could damage the internet ecosystem, however, by opening the door to paid fast lanes for some services and relegating others to slower speeds. That could increase costs for some big internet companies and their customers, and hurt smaller businesses that can’t afford to pay, critics added.
The net-neutrality rule adopted by the FCC in 2015 basically required internet providers such as cable and wireless firms to treat all traffic equally. One big aim was to prevent internet providers such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. from using their outsize leverage to disadvantage internet firms such as Netflix or Facebook.
The Republican-led FCC’s decision to roll back Obama-era net neutrality protections is a major win for conservative media outlets. When the FCC authorized net neutrality rules in 2015, Fox News attacked it as a government power grab. Fortune pointed out how gutting net neutrality, combined with Trump’s proposal to slash corporate taxes, counts as a “double win” for “the nation's largest communications companies.”
The proposed roll-back of net neutrality rules is now the third decision by Pai that seems to ameliorate complaints from conservative media. In February, he decided to impose cuts to the Lifeline program, which conservatives have assailed for years as so-called “Obamaphones,” and his decision earlier this month to ease merger restrictions on certain media companies could materially benefit Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting, conservative outlets firmly allied with the Trump administration.
Criticism of Pai’s looming decision started before the proposal was even announced. On April 26, The Verge reported that it was “ready to rumble” to keep the protections in place and noted that rescinding the rule would be great for service providers and “terrible news for the rest of us.” The following day, The Verge reported that 800 tech start ups signed a letter opposing changes to net neutrality guidelines, which they believed would dismantle the rules “that allow the startup ecosystem to thrive.” Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak also strongly opposes ending net neutrality and was a founder of Electronic Frontier Foundation, an open internet advocacy group committed to net neutrality.
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.
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