Comcast spends millions in lobbying on net neutrality, without their news networks disclosing their spending

Comcast Corporation has spent millions of dollars on Congressional lobbying on the issue of net neutrality the last several years, without its three news departments — NBC News, CNBC and MSNBC — disclosing their company’s spending on the online provision, according to an investigation by TYT Politics.

Comcast is one of the biggest critics of net neutrality in its current form, since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to reclassify broadband, from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), as a telecommunications service in 2015. But you would not be aware of the media giant’s apprehension towards the popular internet rule if you followed their news departments over the last couple of years. Nor would you be cognizant of Comcast’s lavish lobbyist spending on the online provision—before and after the election of Donald Trump to the White House—if you watched the coverage of their news programming.

TYT Politics has discovered that Comcast has spent almost $4 million in lobbying Congress on net neutrality issues from the end of 2014 through the first quarter of 2017, according to Congressional lobbying disclosure forms. Over $1.5 million of that money was spent from the start of 2016 to the first quarter of 2017.

During this same time period, TYT Politics has discovered that NBC News, CNBC and MSNBC haven’t disclosed their company’s lobbyist spending on Capitol Hill during that time period. And outside of a few news segments on CNBC - with either big tech figures expressing their support for net neutrality or telecom giants railing against it - Comcast networks have rarely featured or even mentioned the online topic on their shows at all, despite their gigantic Capitol Hill lobbyist spending on net neutrality.

In February 2015 the Democratic-led FCC voted 3–2 to pass net neutrality rules, reclassifying Internet service providers as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act. That reclassification by the FCC placed ISPs in the same category with telephone networks.

Without ISPs classified under Title II, Comcast and other telecom behemoths, like AT&T (currently trying to merge with CNN parent company Time Warner) and Verizon, could create different tiers of online speeds and charge consumers for faster connections. Telecom giants could also block or censor websites they dislike, as Comcast sent a “Cease and Desist” letter to pro-net neutrality website “Fight For The Future” for claiming that their website violates Comcast’s “valuable intellectual property.” Fight For The Future has used their website to highlight any astroturf campaigns, whether in the FCC database or in the comment sections on big net neutrality stories, that Comcast is possibly behind.

Comcast and other telecommunication companies loathed the Obama led-FCC vote over two years ago and expressed their consternation over its existence in public letters to the commission. Kathryn Zachem, a Comcast senior vice president for regulatory and state legislative affairs, wrote a letter to the FCC in December 2014 that Title II reclassification of net neutrality would cause “substantial risk of harm.”

Despite that claim, Comcast expressed how ecstatic they were with their 2015 performance, stating they had “fantastic operating metrics, including our best video customer results in nine years, and our best high-speed Internet customer results in eight years.”

In an interview last December at a UBS event transcribed by Reuters, Comcast CFO Mike Cavanagh basically admitted how Title II net neutrality didn’t harm Comcast’s business. “I think in terms of what actually happens — I’ve been asked this — it’s the fear of what Title II could have meant, more than what it actually did mean,” Cavanagh said when asked if the current net neutrality rules damaged their company.

So much for Title II net neutrality being a “substantial harm” to their overall bottom line.

Buoyed by Democrats no longer having control over the executive branch, Comcast has kept a steady stream of big money lobbyist spending on net neutrality issues, as a Republican-led FCC rolling back the Obama Administration’s Title II reclassification of ISPs seems inevitable. With former Verizon lawyer and Trump-selected FCC Chairman Ajit Pai vowing that net neutrality’s days are numbered, Comcast is spending to make sure the expectations of him and Congressional Republicans gutting the popular internet principle becomes a reality.

Beltway law firms such as Brownstein Hyatt, which just co-hosted a fundraiser with Virginia Senator and former Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine, FTI Government Affairs, Palmetto Group and Forbes-Tate have represented Comcast in their lobbying against net neutrality over the last two years. Most of those law firms have lobbied in Comcast’s behalf on the issue several times during that same time period.

In the first quarter of this year alone, Comcast has spent $300,000 to lobby against net neutrality on Capitol Hill. The largest the telecom giant has given to a firm in 2017 so far is $90,000 to Brownstein Hyatt, whose first quarter disclosure was filed on April 20. $80,000 was given to FTI Consulting Firm, a global advisory outlet who does work in 46 other countries.

Law firm Forbes-Tate received $60,000 from Comcast for lobbying duty in the first quarter of 2017. Forbes-Tate boasts on their website that they are proud to have partnerships of not only Comcast, but the likes of Verizon, T-Mobile, PHRMA, Oracle, Anheuser-Busch, H&R Block, The Internet & Television Association, Bank of America and the Bipartisan Policy Center. Verizon and T-Mobile have long been critics of current net neutrality rules and expressed their excitement over Title II net neutrality possibly being gone with the Trump administration.

Palmetto Group was given $50,000 from Comcast to represent their interests so far this year. Some of Palmetto Group’s clients besides Comcast, listed on their website, include health insurance company Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina, anti-net neutrality outlet National Cable Telecommunications Association and the currently-much-maligned United Airlines.

Comcast has given an additional $20,000 on lobbying against net neutrality so far this year to D&P Creative Strategies, who currently lobby for tech giant Microsoft and the United States-Spain Council. In the past, D&P proudly represented the likes of Walmart, PhRMA, Time Warner, the Kellogg Foundation, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Inc and current House Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-TX). Time Warner was the first telecom to be slapped with violating net neutrality and have expressed their annoyance over FCC regulations being too harsh on telecoms. If Comcast lobbyist spending trends on net neutrality remain the same as they have been in previous years, their 2017 current total of $300,000 will rise significantly.

TYT Politics (Image by Andrew Jones)

In 2016 alone, Comcast shelled out $1,240,000 to law firms to represent them in lobbying public officials on the topic of net neutrality. That was slightly less than the 2015 total of $1,6222,000 spent on the topic, including $470,000 during the first quarter of 2015 when the FCC voted on the principle. Add on $410,000 spending in the final quarter of 2014 alone, and Comcast’s lobbying on net neutrality in the final five month period when the Obama-led FCC pondered a final vote on the provision was nearly $1 million.

But despite all of this Comcast spending, their news networks (NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC) have barely mentioned net neutrality. And they certainly haven’t disclosed their company’s lobbying on the issue.

NBC’s Nightly News with Lester Holt has had only one full report on net neutrality in 2017; on April 26 day, when new FCC Chairman Pai announced his plans to roll back the rule. In the news report, NBC News’ Tom Costello did disclose that Comcast does own NBC. But Costello listed the long rebutted and factually dubious corporate reasoning from his bosses at Comcast, along with other telecom giants such as AT&T and Verizon’s, being against Title II net neutrality, saying it “stifles competition and creativity,” when it does not. And, most importantly, Costello did not mention Comcast’s lobbyist spending on net neutrality issues.

A similar lack of full disclosure about Pai’s rollback announcement occurred on the same day on NBC News’ website. NBC News tech reporter Alyssa Newcomb mentioned Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts’ desire for Title II net neutrality to disappear. But Newcomb’s article did not contain any information on the company’s lobbying on net neutrality.

The last time NBC Nightly News had a segment on net neutrality before that April report was back on that February 26, 2015—the day it was voted into existence.

If you thought net neutrality’s coverage was difficult to find on NBC News’ limited hours of coverage, the topic has struggled to garner attention 24/7 on MSNBC, as Comcast was spending money in the background on the issue. A Lexis Nexis search has revealed that net neutrality hasn’t received a full news segment on MSNBC this year in the wave of the network’s endless Trump coverage, especially during the 7-10 PM primetime hours that are currently enjoying their best success ever. In fact, the FCC itself has received sparse coverage on MSNBC in 2017 so far.

MSNBC’s website hasn’t been much better on covering net neutrality. Its website has only mentioned net neutrality twice in articles in 2017, and both have come at the bottom of a news link roundup from Rachel Maddow show producer Steve Benen. Neither post mentioned Comcast’s lobbying spending on net neutrality.

The lack of coverage on net neutrality from MSNBC in 2017 so far largely pales in comparison to their coverage of the issue in 2015, and especially around the time the FCC voted on the online principle. Maddow interviewed prominent tech blogger Xeni Jardin on that February 26 rule making day. On their website, four articles were neutral news reports about the subject, including two on that same February 26, 2015 date. The other article on MSNBC’s website about net neutrality in early 2015 was an opinion piece against it from a member of the conservative group Competitive Enterprise Institute. Again, none of those pieces mentioned any of Comcast’s lobbying on net neutrality (primarily or with other issues), which in the fourth quarter of 2014 and first quarter of 2015 combined to almost total $1 million.

CNBC has given visibly more attention to net neutrality than NBC News or MSNBC in 2017, due in part to their channel focusing on the business aspect of the topic. But CNBC’s coverage of net neutrality has also been pretty minuscule for a topic that its bosses are spending massive amounts of money lobbying on.

At least eight news segments on CNBC have been centered on net neutrality’s future in the Trump presidency era. CNBC in 2017 has also posted seven articles about net neutrality on its site. Three have been written by CNBC staff writers, while the other four have been articles reposted on its site from either Buzzfeed, Recode, or The Verge. And once more, none of those reports from a Comcast news network mentioned the company’s lobbying on net neutrality.

Comcast, the biggest Internet Service Protocol (ISP) in America, has vaguely stated its support for “an open internet ” in the past. But again, it’s been clear in its dismay over broadband being reclassified under Title II. Comcast praised Pai for his vow to rollback the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules.

When asked for comment on why Comcast news channels haven’t disclosed the company’s lobbyist spending on net neutrality, Comcast Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications Sena Fitzmaurice stated that “all of Comcast channels have complete editorial independence and no interference from Comcast.”

With former Pai aide Brendan Carr poised to be nominated by President Trump to fill the last of the five commissioner seats at the FCC, that would give Republicans a 3–2 majority on the board to rollback the Obama/Tom Wheeler-led FCC’s net neutrality rules. The Senate would have to approve of both Carr and Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel, also nominated by Trump earlier in June, for them to become commissioners. The date for the Senate vote on both nominees has not been scheduled as of now.

Comcast purchased NBCUniversal in 2013, taking sole ownership from General Electric.

Disclosure: TYT Network’s business interests could be affected by the issue of net neutrality. Almost every website that is not a multi-billion dollar business, which includes TYT, could be adversely affected if net neutrality is no longer in effect.