The corporate battle lines over the new federal rules for the Internet have been well established. Vocal technology startups have been leading the charge for muscular regulations for broadband access, and Internet service providers including Comcast (CMCSA) and Verizon (VZ) have been arguing loudly for more flexibility. Blue chip companies without obvious tech interests have kept a lower profile.
But a corporate alliance with subtle interests in this fight has been quietly pushing the Federal Communications Commission for strict broadband rules. In a series of meetings this year attended by representatives from Ford Motor (F), Visa (V), United Parcel Service (UPS), and Bank of America (BAC), participants urged FCC commissioners to reclassify broadband service under Title II, according to documents filed with the FCC.
That places some of the biggest Fortune 500 companies firmly on one side of the net neutrality debate, advocating for Internet access to be regulated like public utilities. It’s a position President Obama came out in support of last week. But it’s particularly striking, since none of these companies have discussed the issue publicly—and all four deny advocating for net neutrality behind closed doors with the FCC.
A corporate advocacy group, the Ad Hoc Telecommunications Users Committee, has so far paid at least three visits to commissioners at the FCC this year. The group, which has been around for at least three decades, doesn’t disclose information about its membership, doesn’t make public statements, and doesn’t even have a website.
Anyone who meets FCC commissioners must submit information about these visits. The corporate representatives affiliated with Ad Hoc Telecom are listed in the FCC filings without mention of their employers, but their affiliations were not disputed by the companies. The attendees included:
Nicholas Lewis, senior vice president for federal legislative affairs at UPS
Lawrence Chattoo, senior vice president for regulatory and public policy at Bank of America
Carl Holshouser, a government relations leader at Visa
James Carroll, Washington counsel for Ford Motor
The FCC is also required to post information on what was discussed, and the disclosures make it clear that the people in these meetings echoed the arguments being made by consumer advocates agitating against Internet fast lanes of all kinds.
“Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet” was the subject under discussion, according to the FCC disclosures, and Ad Hoc Telecom members argued that Internet providers have “terminating access monopolies.” That bit of telecom jargon means that a company trying to reach a customer has to go through the Internet providers first. Widespread concerns that Internet providers will exploit that power is the entire justification for net neutrality rules. The Ad Hoc Telecom members specifically argued for Title II reclassification and passed out a handout to that effect, according to the FCC filings, which can be found here, here, and here.
Despite the FCC disclosures, the companies whose executives attended the FCC meetings told Bloomberg Businessweek that the proceedings did not include statements of support for Title II.
“For this meeting, Ford’s goal was to understand the commissioner’s perspective and to also share our objective of providing a fast and reliable connection for our customers and their vehicles. Ford did not advocate for Title II classification,” says Ford spokeswoman Emily Olin. Visa likewise says it isn’t pushing a particular point of view on net neutrality. Kara Ross, a spokeswoman for UPS, says, “We were talking to the commissioners about terminating access monopoly.”
Ad Hoc Telecom’s low profile hasn’t prevented the group from sparring periodically with telecommunications companies. In July, for instance, representatives from the group filed a comment with the FCC urging it to reclassify broadband under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. The group argued that the Internet had become too vital to remain subject to lighter regulations afforded to information services. “This is a question of fact, not policy,” the group wrote. “As a result of changes in the engineering and deployment of network and Internet technologies, the commission’s classification of Internet service in 1997 as an unregulated ‘information service’ is simply out of step with reality.”
It’s not surprising that these companies don’t want to talk openly about net neutrality. They have little to gain by alienating business partners such as Verizon, AT&T (T), and Comcast. Groups like the Telecommunications Users Committee exist to shield them from those conflicts, even as the companies quietly pursue policy goals in talks with the FCC.
What is surprising is that such nontech companies as Ford and Bank of America feel strongly enough about net neutrality to bother advocating behind closed doors. A startup like video streaming service Vimeo (IACI) clearly has a lot to lose from Internet fast lanes—the risk to a trucking company like UPS is a bit less obvious.
Ad Hoc Telecom knows it’s a little strange for offline giants to take an interest in Internet rules. Here’s how the group explained that dynamic in a filing with the FCC back in July: “Every retailer with an online catalogue, every manufacturer with online product specifications, every insurance company with online claims processing, every bank offering online account management, every company with a website–every business in America interacting with its customers online is dependent upon an open Internet.”
More from Businessweek: