Investors Slam Comcast For Lack Of Lobbying Transparency

from the fat-man-behind-the-curtain dept

While we think we have a solid grasp on how much companies spend on lobbying and influence peddling, we actually have no idea. Case in point: while a company like Comcast may disclose its overall spending on "lobbying" (as defined as visiting DC to speak to politicians in a bid to shape policy), there's a universe of other influence peddling it's not at all transparent about. For example when AT&T and Comcast wanted the FCC to kill net neutrality rules, both paid a long list of legitimate and sometimes shady groups to express support for the move, even if that support ran in stark contrast of the interest of their constituents.

Hand in hand with "astroturf" and other efforts, companies often pay a long list of consultants, academics, think tankers and others to parrot support for what, quite often, is anti-competitive and anti-consumer policy positions. For example, paying an ex-politician to write an op/ed supporting the death of net neutrality isn't strictly "lobbying," but it's influence peddling. Yet such efforts aren't usually included in many companies' financial disclosures. Participation in proxy trade organizations and state-level lobbying often lacks the same transparency as standard "federal lobbying" disclosures.

Some Comcast investors have apparently grown tired of this lack of transparency. In a recent letter to the company, an investment group dubbed Friends Fiduciary demanded greater transparency into the company's lobbying practices, arguing that failure to do so is actively harming the company's reputation:

"Comcast's lack of lobbying transparency perpetuates its negative public image and could fuel regulatory backlash or contribute to the rise of municipal broadband, potentially threatening company profitability. In a highly regulated industry providing essential services such as telecommunications, we maintain that careful consideration of reputational risk becomes even more crucial."

The group is quick to single out Comcast's disingenuous "support" for net neutrality--and its opposition to community broadband--as examples of how the company is actively harming its overall reputation (while inviting an inevitable post-Trump-era regulatory backlash) and therefore its overall corporate value:

"Comcast's lack of lobbying transparency perpetuates its negative public image and could fuel regulatory backlash or contribute to the rise of municipal broadband, potentially threatening company profitability. In a highly regulated industry providing essential services such as telecommunications, we maintain that careful consideration of reputational risk becomes even more crucial. Municipal broadband has drawn bipartisan support, especially in conservative areas.

More than 750 communities in the US have decided to operate their own networks. As one article puts it, "Our desire for better broadband, and our collective disdain for Comcast, tends to be one of the few things capable of bridging the partisan divide." Comcast's consistent low rankings in the areas of trust and citizenship speak to the potential for its lack of transparency to impact its future prospects.

Not too surprisingly, Comcast says the company isn't keen on bringing more transparency to its lobbying expenditures, claiming doing so would be too expensive and time consuming:

"Because the information that this proposal seeks to be disclosed is generally publicly available in appropriate detail, implementing this proposal would require us to incur unnecessary expense, would divert management attention away from our primary business activities and would raise potential competitive concerns," Comcast said."

Of course most activist-leaning investor proposals like this one usually struggle to get shareholder approval. After all, there's a lot of money to be made by natural monopolies and regulatory capture. When you're happily enjoying tepid, rubber stamp regulators and little to no real competition in most of your markets, what incentive do you have to actually engage in more ethical, transparent behavior? Any real progress on this front needs to come via broader lobbying disclosure reform, something lobbyists often put an end to before it can gain any real traction.

Filed Under: influence, influence peddling, net neutrality, transparency
Companies: comcast


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 6:22am

    these comments are better late than never but should have been made years ago! after all, there have been no changes to what Comcast does or the way it does them, in fact, they are more secretive than ever, hopefully for their own good!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 6:26am

    “Lobbying Transparency”
    oxymoron of the year

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 6:43am

    How is it even possible to measure lobbying when the vast majority of "lobbying"/influence-peddling has always been done by people are not registered lobbyists working 'on the clock' ? When is a round of golf with old friends a lobbying event and when is it not?

    Maybe we need to have many more prosecutions for people like Maria Butina, who went to prison for basically being an unregistered lobbyist (for a foreign country that was not Israel). But that sort of justice will never happen since virtually everyone in Washington is or will be part of the lobbying-by-another-name scam.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 6:51am

    Natural monopoly???

    I could afford to rent a bucket truck and hang my own fiber to Level 3. What I can't afford is access to right of ways. While these right of ways already exist in the form of government owned utility poles, and there is plenty of space for more lines on the poles, Comcast and Verizon have made sure there is no way anyone else can access these assets by bribing the government.

    Comcast has no natural monopoly.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 7:11am

      Re:

      What happens when all your neighbours also hang their own fibre on the same poles? Note, their are requirement of minimum height, separation to prevent the fibres hitting each other, and weight, wind loading, and ice loading issues to be considered.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 7:36am

        Re: Re:

        Comcast loses their government enforced ability to fleece consumers.

        I know you are trying to argue the other extreme but the real world isn't binary. You don't have to be an extremist. That is your choice. My choice is to avoid the extremes and compromise in the middle.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 8:03am

          Re: Re: Re:

          My choice is to avoid the extremes and compromise in the middle.

          Since when is the free for all that you propose a compromise?

          Also, the issue in the US is not the monopoly, but rather the regulatory capture, a problem that other countries have largely avoided when setting up regulatory agencies.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 11:18am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            You are the one assuming I am talking about a free for all. Stop making an ass out of u. Definitely leave me out of it.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 11:36am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              Where in your initial statement is there any indication of you wanting a free for all? Perhaps you ought to explain your ideas more that just I could run my own line.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 11:44am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                Edit Fail: that should be not wanting.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 12:02pm

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                There isn't any indication of me wanting a free for all. Some other AC made the leap into the absurd.

                I don't know what you think I should have added. If I could access utility poles I could rent a bucket truck and hang my own fiber. Competing on price and speed with Verizon would be easy enough. Back when I did my homework Comcast was the only game in town, and I upgraded to dial up once I got them to let me out of the contract.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • identicon
                  Anonymous Coward, 31 May 2019 @ 3:32am

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                  Competing on price and speed with Verizon would be easy enough.

                  Only if they do not start a price war, which if you are a small operation, they will win in months, and pick up what you have installed for pennies on the dollar.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                  • icon
                    PaulT (profile), 31 May 2019 @ 5:05am

                    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                    Exactly. Anyone who thinks that a small time operation can have a price war with a major corporation is deluding themselves and needs to deal with reality. The economies of scale alone gives them a huge advantage, and that's assuming they play fair.

                    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          James Burkhardt (profile), 30 May 2019 @ 8:42am

          Re: Re: Re:

          So, Comcast and verizon also own a lot of those poles. The pole attachment rules also are about moving the fiber owned by comcast and verizon. Additionally, running individual fibre connections from every home to the local 'backbone' is not efficent, cost effective, or practical, particularly when you factor in maintenance and catastrophic failure, such as when a pole goes down.

          You position is ill informed and not at all a 'middle ground compromise'. He is arguing the extreme outcomes of your position, and nothing you have expressed mitigates the implications of the result of your position. You are not a middle ground, you are one of the extreme ends.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 11:16am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            It appears you are working under the assumption that I want to waste money. I don't. I did a market survey(spoke with my neighbors) to determine if there was sufficient demand for a competitor. The business case for a neighborhood fiber network closes easily. Your nightmare scenario of hundreds of lines makes no sense because no one will pay for this.

            It also appears you are assuming I didn't bother to do any research into who owns the local poles. The poles I would use are owned by the city. Nice straw man.

            There is plenty of space to add at least eight new lines all the way from my house to L3 without moving anything. I don't need industry talking points.

            Access to government owned utility poles needs to be expanded. End of story.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 11:52am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              So would form a company to own the installation, so that the system remain available without you. Also, just how many competitors could the system withstand, or would you use regulation to ensure that only one community system was allowed in an area.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 12:08pm

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                I had capital but was not well capitalized at the time, so my expectation prior to trying to access poles was my system would be bought out sooner or later.

                I am against using regulations to create economic rents, so I most definitely would not have tried to block access.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 7:55am

      Re:

      That isn't what a natural monopoly means. Technically you could build your own generators and use wells for power and water but that doesn't mean that the utilities don't have a natural monopoly position because they already have a first mover insurmountable advantage in the sunk infastructure costs.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 30 May 2019 @ 8:40am

      Re:

      "Comcast has no natural monopoly."

      You seem confused as to what the term actually means.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 2:07pm

      Re:

      no natural monopoly, but there is a separate "pole attachment" process for each individual pole from your house to the source... With a 6 month delay between each pole attachment, so we'll get to your fiber in the fall of 2045...

      Assuming all your forms are filed the appropriate 6 months before the attachment, but no more than 6 months before each pole attachment (there is a 12 hour window every 6 months when paperwork can be filed properly, in the basement of the library where the plans have been on file for the last 10 years in the locked room at the end of the hall)...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 7:06am

    Was lobbying ever a legitimate practice?

    There is a right to lobby congress but does that include bribery?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    FlatZOut (profile), 30 May 2019 @ 9:16am

    It’s no wonder people don’t like playing Monopoly.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 30 May 2019 @ 3:41pm

    'Look, we're already at rock bottom, okay?'

    Comcast doesn't have to worry about the public perception of the company in large part because of their lobbying efforts, which have ensured that they face no competition and can treat their customers however they please. As such they have no reason(and plenty of reasons not to) to make their lobbying expenditures easy to track.

    That said...

    "Because the information that this proposal seeks to be disclosed is generally publicly available in appropriate detail, implementing this proposal would require us to incur unnecessary expense, would divert management attention away from our primary business activities and would raise potential competitive concerns," Comcast said."

    ... The excuses they use are telling. If they already have the information then the expenses to make them easily available would be minimal, and the idea that making it public(while arguing that it already is) would 'raise potential competitive concerns' would seem to indicate that there's something in there that they would very much like to keep hidden.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 4:46pm

      Re: 'Look, we're already at rock bottom, okay?'

      As if they give a shit about the public or their perceptions, they haven't in the past, not sure why they would change direction in the future.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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