Photo: Elise Amendola, STF
The telecom industry’s lobbying muscle pushed a consumer privacy measure to a swift death in Congress.
Republicans struck down Obama-era rules that would have imposed tight restrictions on what broadband companies such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast could do with their customers’ personal data. Digital-rights and consumer-advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation supported keeping the rules. But they were outmatched by telecom trade groups and lobbyists.
“These guys spend a fortune in D.C., they’re very plugged in on the Hill and this was clearly their priority,” said Craig Aaron, the president of consumer-advocacy group Free Press.
Former AT&T lobbyist Steve Billet, now on the faculty at George Washington University, said the telecom industry’s willingness to spend big on lobbying marks “the difference between them and the Electronic Frontier Foundation guys.”
The overall lobbying tab for telecom services and telephone companies exceeded $123 million in 2016, the money-influence research group Center for Responsive Politics says. That makes them among the top-spending industries in Washington. By contrast, some of the most active privacy and consumer groups spent just over $1 million.
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The lobbying on both sides goes far beyond privacy. Other issues on the agenda included immigration, taxes, cable boxes and cybersecurity. But the disparity in the spending totals shows that when it comes to politics, industry can wield a lot of power with its pocketbook.
Telecom has also given more in political contributions to the House Republicans who voted to repeal the rules (about $138,000 on average over their careers) than to the 15 Republicans who voted to keep them ($77,000), according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the Senate, the Republicans who voted to undo broadband privacy received more from telecom ($369,000) than the Democrats who voted to keep the rules ($329,000).
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who heads the House subcommittee on communications and technology, received $125,000 from telecom for the 2016 elections, while the ranking Democrat, Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, got $88,000. In the Senate, Jeff Flake, R.-Ariz., chairman of a privacy and technology subcommittee, received $59,000, compared with $27,000 for the ranking Democrat, Al Franken of Minnesota.
To be sure, money does not guarantee a favorable vote. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the House, received more than $1.3 million from telecom over his career and nearly $190,000 for the 2016 election. Yet he joined every other voting Democrat in opposing the industry’s repeal efforts.
The repealed rules would have required companies to get customers’ permission before offering marketers a wealth of information about them, including health and financial details, geographic location and lists of websites visited and apps used.
Republicans and industry officials complained that the restrictions would have unfairly burdened internet providers, as advertising rivals such as Google and Facebook don’t have to abide by them.