As the Senate prepares to vote to keep net neutrality rules in place, an organization funded by the telecom industry and the Koch network is running ads on Twitter encouraging people to contact their senators and representatives and urge them to vote against it. Nothing about the ads or the account of the group running them indicate to users that the group has industry connections.
In December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net neutrality rules. By forcing a vote under the Congressional Review Act, Senate Democrats hope to overturn the FCC’s decision to deregulate broadband and prevent the agency from setting similar policy again in the future. Predictably, telecom companies opposed to net neutrality rules have come out against the move.
For the past several weeks, an organization known as Taxpayers Protection Alliance has been running social media ads urging people to contact their elected officials and ask them to vote against the CRA.
Within the past day, hundreds of people have apparently tweeted at their representatives using TPA’s #No2CRA hashtag. Note that TPA’s ad appears as to be geo-targeted, so that when users click on the button in their promoted tweet, it automatically creates a tweet directed at their representative. While Democrats may be able to cobble together enough votes to pass the CRA vote in the Senate, they face more of an uphill battle in the House. That makes the pressure TPA seeks to put on representatives potentially very important.
TPA presents itself as a middle-of-the-road, unbiased source of information of interest to American taxpayers. Its website reads: “The Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) is a non-profit non-partisan organization dedicated to educating the public through the research, analysis and dissemination of information on the government’s effects on the economy.”
In fact, TPA is funded extensively by the telecom industry and the Koch political network. At a time when voters have become increasingly concerned about the origins of political ads on social media, TPA’s Twitter ad blitz highlights how the political process can be manipulated and the origins and funding of advertising ― particularly online — can be obscured. Because the CRA is not a political campaign, TPA does not need to file any sorts of expenditure reports the way a candidate for electoral office might. And because the organization is targeting ordinary citizens rather than lawmakers, it does not need to file lobbying disclosure forms. As a result, its spending is opaque.
However, by reviewing the tax filings of other organizations that make grants to TPA, it is possible to see patterns in the funding stream that suggest the organization is not the neutral watchdog it portrays itself to be.
Over the past several years TPA has received continuous funding from two major telecom industry associations: NCTA — the Internet and Television Association and CTIA — the Wireless Association. It also received funding from the Motion Picture Association of America, which has also lobbied on net neutrality.
Tax documents filed by the NCTA show that the association, which represents the broadband and cable television industry, has given the TPA at least $10,000 every year since 2012. In 2016, the NCTA upped its contribution to $20,000. The NCTA has been openly pushing against the CRA. However, the TPA mentions nowhere on its site that it is funded in part by the NCTA.
The MPAA has similarly given the TPA $20,000 every year since at least 2014. While not explicitly a telecom association, the MPAA has made fighting online piracy a major priority, lobbying in support of the Stop Online Piracy Act. The MPAA has taken an interest in net neutrality primarily insofar as it would affect efforts to combat online piracy.
CTIA’s funding of TPA is more indirect. It funded TPA through another former proxy organization, MyWireless.org, which is legally a separate non-profit entity, but operates as a subsidiary of CTIA. Today, the website MyWireless.org redirects to ActWireless.org, which focuses on advancing the wireless industry’s policy positions, primarily around 5G deployment and privacy. The site makes clear at the bottom of the page that it is a project of CTIA.
However, several years ago, MyWireless.org advanced the wireless industry’s agenda without identifying its connection to CTIA. Nonetheless, the website was originally registered by the CTIA’s IT director, according to domain registration history. That same domain registration listed the organization’s address as the same as CTIA’s address. The former president of CTIA, Steve Largent, also served as board chairman of MyWireless.org.
MyWireless.org has given TPA $10,000 per year since at least 2013. CTIA, in turn, gave MyWireless.org $649,271 according to its most recent tax filing. That amount accounts for the entirety of MyWireless.org’s revenue for the year, according to its own tax filing.
TPA also has a recent history of being a conduit for the telecom industry’s positions to the general public. According to Pew Research Center, text originating on Taxpayers Protection Alliance’s website accounted for the most popular anti-net neutrality comment submitted to the FCC during the public comment period leading up to the decision to repeal net neutrality rules. Nearly 2.4 million messages opposing net neutrality used TPA’s language.
In 2011, TPA received a substantial cash infusion from a group linked to the Koch political network, run by billionaire conservative brothers Charles and David Koch. Americans for Job Security’s tax filing shows that the group gave $1.1 million to TPA in 2011. AJS, in turn, received $4.8 million from the Center to Protect Patient Rights in 2010. CPPR was founded by longtime Koch operative Sean Noble, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The Koch network has had deepening ties to the telecom industry in recent years. The NCTA has given $150,000 to the Mercatus Center every year since at least 2010, according to tax filings. Mercatus is a free market think tank funded by the Koch brothers and is part of the Koch-backed State Policy Network of right-wing think tanks. The NCTA has also given money to the State Policy Network itself and the Koch-linked group Americans for Prosperity.