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Digital Divide

A child attends an online class via a laptop computer. (Photo: Getty Images)

Internet Companies' $234 Million in Political Spending Harms Efforts to Close Digital Divide: Report

"Now more than ever, policymakers must pass reforms that not only close the digital divide but also hold ISPs accountable for providing high-speed, reliable, and affordable broadband."

Brett Wilkins

To help close the digital divide and curb the pernicious influence of internet service provider lobbying, Congress must pass legislation and the Federal Communications Commission should restore net neutrality regulations, according to a report published Monday.

"The powerful ISP lobby will seemingly spend whatever it takes to keep politicians beholden to them."
—Beth Rotman, Common Cause

The report (pdf) by Common Cause and Communications Workers of America, entitled Broadband Gatekeepers: How ISP Lobbying and Political Influence Shapes the Digital Divide, cites campaign finance data from in an examination of lobbying and political spending by the 15 largest and most influential internet service providers (ISPs) and their trade associations, which spent more than $234 million during the 116th Congress, or an average of more than $320,000 per day.

"Broadband connectivity has never been more important to a functioning 21st-century democracy than it is now as the nation continues to face an unprecedented emergency caused by the Covid-19 pandemic," the report states. "Broadband enhances civic engagement, participation in the democratic process, and a responsive government. It facilitates access to employment, education, healthcare, and a host of other essential services."

"Yet the private sector alone has failed to deliver universal broadband connectivity," it says. "The pandemic has painfully exposed many of the disparities in connectivity we face today, particularly for marginalized communities. For example, students are using parking lot Wi-Fi to do schoolwork, and households are getting left behind in the vaccination sign-up process, which has moved primarily to online formats."

The report notes that "major broadband providers, both telecom and cable, have chosen not to build their networks to areas they deem less profitable and not to upgrade many existing customers left behind by outdated technology. These choices entrench the far too wide digital divide and mean Americans pay some of the highest prices for service."

"At the same time, the largest ISPs have used their outsized influence in Congress to block any legislation that would undermine their stranglehold over the broadband marketplace," the publication adds.

The report proposes the following policies and actions "to help close the digital divide and reduce the undue influence of big special interest money in politics":

  • Passing the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which takes significant steps to address all aspects of the digital divide, including broadband access, affordability, and digital equity;
  • Supporting the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Lifeline program through Universal Service Fund reform and permanent funding from Congress for digital inclusion activities, such as digital literacy training and access to connected devices that help households successfully adopt broadband;
  • Restoring net neutrality and the FCC's authority over broadband;
  • Passing the For the People Act to adopt important lobbying reforms, including expansion of the scope of reportable lobbying to include paid counseling services in support of lobbying contacts and a reduction in the threshold percentage of time spent lobbying for a client that triggers disclosure from 20% to 10%;
  • Amending the Lobbying Disclosure Act to more explicitly require quarterly lobbying reports to disclose specific bills lobbied on and require lobbyists to disclose the specific congressional offices and committees contacted; and
  • Amending federal law to require lobbyists and their clients who otherwise meet the lobbying registration and reporting thresholds to disclose grassroots lobbying expenditures.

"The powerful ISP lobby will seemingly spend whatever it takes to keep politicians beholden to them and maintain a status quo that leaves too many Americans on the wrong side of the digital divide," Common Cause Money in Politics & Ethics Program director Beth Rotman said in a statement. "The Senate needs to pass the For the People Act, a legislative package that includes important lobbying and campaign finance reforms to check the power of wealthy special interests."

In addition to limiting political spending, the For the People Act would expand voting rights, curtail partisan gerrymandering, strengthen ethics rules, implement the DISCLOSE Act, and make Washington, D.C. a state—among other reforms. The House passed the bill in March without a single Republican vote. It was then blocked last month by Senate Republicans using the filibuster.

Communications Workers of America senior director for government affairs Shane Larson said that "our political system is rigged in favor of hedge funds and wealthy shareholders who demand short-term profits over the lasting health of our economy. To satisfy Wall Street, ISPs and trade associations are spending millions fighting legislation that would help close the digital divide."

"The impact this has on low-income communities and rural residents is devastating," Larson added. "Telecom companies are limiting deployment of fiber optic broadband to wealthier neighborhoods and monopoly cable is overcharging for subpar service. It's time broadband workers and customers get some accountability. That has to come from Congress and the FCC."

Common Cause Media and Democracy Program director Yosef Getachew said that "for years, congressional efforts to pass legislation needed to address the nation's long-standing disparities in connectivity have been stopped dead in their tracks in part because of aggressive industry lobbying and the oversized political influence of the largest ISPs."

Getachew added that "now more than ever, policymakers must pass reforms that not only close the digital divide but also hold ISPs accountable for providing high-speed, reliable, and affordable broadband."

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