Internet service providers (ISPs) in the United States have spent almost $1.4 billion on lobbying since 1998, and 2018 was the biggest year so far with a total spend of more than $80 million.
ISPs are some of the biggest holders of personal data. As the FTC’s recent report found, many ISPs are amassing large quantities of sensitive consumer data (with some combining this with third-party data to create incredibly granular insights about users and their households), are using and gathering data in ways that consumers may not expect and may cause harm, are often illusory in their offering of consumer choices when it comes to their data, and have the ability to be as privacy-intrusive as some of the biggest advertising platforms.
With that in mind, how much is your ISP spending on lobbying?
Comparitech researchers compiled and analyzed 61 ISPs’ lobbying expenses from the US Senate’s Lobbying Disclosure Act database, which dates back to 1998.
Here are the highlights of our analysis:
- 2018 was the biggest year yet for ISP lobbying at $80.356 million closely followed by 2011 with $80.308 million.
- Top spenders include AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, which have amassed lobbying expenses of $367 million, $288 million, and $225 million, respectively, since 1998.
- Since 2011, yearly spending on lobbying across all ISPs hasn’t strayed below $72 million, when you discard 2021 which has only received $31.6 million to-date so far.
- The largest amount spent by any provider in any year was AT&T in 1999, at almost $23 million. AT&T’s acquisition of Ameritech Corp accounted for much of this, and the merger eventually led to the creation of America’s largest telecom company.
- Lobbying in favor of mergers and acquisitions accounted for many of the biggest expenses for individual ISPs in a single year.
- $1.397 billion has been spent by ISPs on lobbying since 1998.
What is ISP lobbying?
Lobbying expenses include any money used to influence local, state, or federal legislators and regulators. According to the IRS, that includes expenses incurred to participate or intervene in any political campaign for or against a candidate for public office. Attempts to influence the public about elections, legislative matters, and referendums also count as lobbying.
Much ado has been made about big telecom’s influence on politics, particularly when it comes to prominent issues like broadband privacy and net neutrality. Many politicians and their organizations receive campaign donations from telecoms. A separate study of contributions made in the last election cycle shows that despite big telecom giving to both sides of the aisle in the past, those contributions now almost always go to Republican candidates.
In exchange, telecoms have the ear of lawmakers and regulators at the local, state, and national levels. They lobby against smaller competitors. They lobby against online privacy laws in towns and states. They lobby the FCC for less industry regulation. They lobby financial regulators to push through mega-mergers. And lobby groups even go to court for ISPs, in some cases suing states that try to enforce their own net neutrality rules.
According to OpenSecrets.org, Telecom Services spent $1.84 billion on lobbying since 1998. That includes companies other than the 61 in our list, hence the larger number. It’s the 12th biggest industry in America when it comes to lobbying expenses.
Top 5 ISP Lobbying Spenders
The ISPs that spent the most on lobbying since 1998 are all household names:
- AT&T = $367,247,168
- Verizon = $287,583,043
- Comcast = $224,999,323
- Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile USA since 2007) = $92,404,598
- Sprint Corporation = $84,734,621
Top 5 ISP Lobbying Spenders in 2020
These ISPs spent the most on lobbying last year:
- Comcast = $14.3 million
- AT&T = $11.4 million
- Charter Communications = $11 million
- Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile USA) = $9.9 million
- Verizon = $9.6 million
Top 5 ISP Lobbying Expenses in One Year
ISPs lobby the government for multiple reasons, but the big ticket items usually involve mergers and acquisitions.
- AT&T in 1999 = $22,960,000 (acquisition of Ameritech Corp)
- AT&T in 2006 = $22,405,497 (acquisition of BellSouth)
- Verizon in 1998 = $21,260,000 (trying to get approval from the FCC to offer long-distance services)
- AT&T in 2011 = $20,230,000 (attempted merger with T-Mobile)
- Comcast in 2011 = $19,260,000 (acquisition of NBC Universal)
Notes and limitations
Smaller organizations that submitted lobbying expenses, but were below the threshold, haven’t been included as the specific figures are not available.
Any reports submitted that are below the threshold and don’t have specific figures have been omitted. These are denoted in our data by “$0.00” to indicate the fact that there were lobbying expenses in this year by the company but we don’t have the exact figures.
ISPs and their subsidiaries
These are the ISPs and their subsidiaries included in our analysis:
Adak Eagle Enterprises LLC
Adak Telephone Utilities
Altice USA, Inc, Altice USA (CABLEVISION), Altice Group, Cablevision Systems Corporation (S.A)
American Broadband & Telecommunications
AT&T, Inc, BellSouth Corp, SBC Communications, Ameritech Corp, Southwestern Bell, Excite@Home, AT&T Broadband
NOT other subsidiaries that don’t relate to internet services.
Subsidiary of Cogeco Communications (Canada).
C Spire (subsidiary of Telapex, Inc.)
Carolina West Wireless
CenturyLink (Now Lumen Technologies)
CenturyTel Service Group, Qwest Communications, Embarq Corp, CenturyTel, Inc.
Comcast Cable Communications
Some subsidiaries (i.e. NBCUniversal Media) not included as not relevant to ISPs.
Cordova Telephone Cooperative
Cricket Wireless (Subsidiary of Leap Wireless)
2007 – 2012 for subsidiary Cricket Wireless, 1999 – 2006 for Leap Wireless
Cricket Wireless is a subsidiary of AT&T but not included in AT&T figures.
Deutsche Telekom / T-Mobile USA
From 2007 Deutsche Telekom has operated as T-Mobile USA. However, was also lobbying as its parent company, Deutsche Telekom, prior to this (back to 2000).
Electric Power Board
Farmers Telephone Cooperative
Known as Citizens Utilities until 2000 and Citizens Communications from 2000 to 2008.
General Communication, Inc (GCI)
Gila River Telecommunications
Hughes Network Systems – a subsidiary of Echostar Corp.
Some other subsidiaries are not included as not relevant to ISPs.
The subsidiary, Aireon LLC, is related to air transport so omitted.
Level 3 Communications
Acquired by CenturyLink in 2017, completed in 2018.
Now part of Lumen Technologies (which is covered in CenturyLink figures)
Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico
Part of Harbinger Capital Partners. Previous name LightSquared, Inc.
Mescalero Apache Telecom, Inc.
Nushagak Telephone Cooperative
Now KwiKom Communications.
Puerto Rico Telephone Company (Claro PR)
Q Link Wireless
Bought by TPG Capital which may explain why no figures from 2010 onwards.
Silver Star Communications
Subsidiary for SoftCorp.
Now T-Mobile USA.
Bought by Altice USA in 2016, hence no data from this date.
TDS (Telephone and Data Systems, Inc)
Inc. Parent – Telephone & Data Systems, Inc. (2008 and prior) Subsidiary – US Cellular, TDS Telecommunications,
Townes Telecommunications, Inc.
Also files as Townes 5G.
Part of the above company but has separate lobbying expenses.
Verizon Wireless, Verizon Business, GTE Corp, Bell Atlantic
Up to and including 2010, the industry the company was lobbying was Defense Electronics so not included.
Data researchers: Charlotte Bond, Rebecca Moody