Big Telecom’s best friend in Congress just got a very big promotion.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the arch-conservative Tennessee Republican who has received mountains of campaign cash from the telecom industry, has been chosen by the GOP to lead a key Congressional subcommittee with broad jurisdiction over cable, phone, and internet issues.
For years, Blackburn has worked tirelessly to undermine pro-consumer policies advanced by the Federal Communications Commission—policies that have invariably been opposed by the very corporate giants that have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into her campaign coffers.
In particular, Blackburn has waged a relentless campaign against the FCC’s policy safeguarding net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible, which she has disparaged as “socialistic.” She has also opposed efforts to promote community broadband networks, to make internet access more affordable for underserved communities, to increase competition in the video “set-top box” market, and to protect consumer privacy from broadband industry abuses.
As a result, Blackburn has earned a reputation among public interest advocates as the biggest enemy of internet freedom, openness, accessibility, and affordability on Capitol Hill. In the new Congress, she will serve as Chairman of the influential House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, which has oversight of the FCC, as well as all matters related to cable, wireless, and broadband networks, including privacy and cybersecurity.
Blackburn’s rise to the top of the broadband policy mountain comes at a time when Republicans are poised to take control of the FCC under the incoming Trump administration. Public interest groups are bracing for Trump’s appointees, working together with leading GOP lawmakers like Blackburn—who is also a member of Trump’s transition team—to begin rolling back pro-consumer policies that are opposed by corporate interests.
“To understand where her true loyalties lie, one need only follow the money.”
“With Blackburn, the myth of Sisyphus comes to mind,” said Christopher Mitchell, Director for Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a longtime open internet advocate. “It feels like every time you get used to the challenges we have ahead of us, it gets harder. She’ll do what AT&T and Comcast want, and I’m guessing it’ll be a disaster, and then she’ll have to own it.”
Blackburn’s coziness with the telecom and media industry interests has been well documented.
“To understand where her true loyalties lie, one need only follow the money trail of campaign contributions from massive media companies like AT&T, Comcast, News Corp and Verizon,” Tim Karr, Senior Director of Strategy at Free Press Action Fund, a DC-based public interest group, said in a statement.
Over the last several years, AT&T and Verizon have been Blackburn's second and third largest donors, pouring $75,750 and $72,650 into her campaigns, respectively, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. She's also received $66,000 from the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, an industry trade group, and $49,500 from Comcast, the nation's largest cable company.
“Match the inflow of corporate cash to the policy positions that Blackburn takes and an unsavory picture emerges,” said Karr. “While DC’s top lobbyists are likely rejoicing over Blackburn’s selection to head the subcommittee, everyday internet users—and those seeking more affordable internet access—have a lot to fear from this swamp dweller.”
On issue after issue, Blackburn has parroted the arguments advanced by these corporate giants, often in conjunction with right-wing talking points like “states' rights” and “limited government.” She frequently rails against “unelected bureaucrats” at the FCC, who she claims have committed egregious “government overreach” by issuing “job-killing regulations.”
In a brazen example of Orwellian spin, Blackburn even went so far as to call her anti-net neutrality legislation the “Internet Freedom Act.”
Claiming that the administration “needs to stop mimicking some of the most restrictive policies of countries like China,” Blackburn warned in 2014 that “federal control of the internet will restrict our online freedom and leave Americans facing the same horrors that they have experienced with HealthCare.gov.” She has also asserted that net neutrality would “stifle innovation, restrict freedoms, and lead to billions of dollars in new fees and taxes for American consumers.”
Needless to say, none of that has happened.
Blackburn is a climate science denier who rejects the theory of evolution.
Among her other beliefs, Blackburn has rejected the scientific consensus that humans contribute to global warming—she’s actually claimed that the Earth is cooling and questioned whether human activity is the “cause for carbon emissions”—and has stated that she does not believe in the theory of evolution. (In addition to campaign contributions from the telecom industry, Blackburn has received more that $460,000 from fossil fuel companies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)
When she’s not demonstrating fealty to corporate interests or promoting bunk science, Blackburn displays an alarming ignorance about the tech policy issues that will soon come under her purview at the House telecom subcommittee. “We all know that what [the FCC] would like to do is regulate the internet so they can tax the internet,” Blackburn bizarrely claimed in 2015. “So they can then come in and set all the rates. So they can then come in and assign priority and value to content.”
All of that is completely false—the FCC’s net neutrality policy has nothing to do with taxing the internet, and the agency specifically used its forbearance authority to make clear that it was not interested in setting broadband rates. In reality, the FCC’s policy, which is opposed by Blackburn's corporate patrons, is designed to ensure that the internet remains an open and level playing field for innovation, economic growth, and free speech.
“She consistently votes against internet users, mouthing the most uninformed talking points imaginable to explain her opposition to common-sense safeguards for open, affordable and safe communications platforms,” said Karr. “If you actually wanted to drain the Washington swamp of politicians who curry favor with corporate special interests, the last thing you’d do is elevate Blackburn.”
Motherboard staff writer Jason Koebler contributed additional reporting.