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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Net neutrality’ advocacy group targets McMorris Rodgers on downtown Spokane billboard

A billboard from the national group Fight for the Future criticizing Cathy McMorris Rodgers' stance on net neutrality has risen near the Spokane County Courthouse. The billboard, is at Mallon and Monroe above Crescent Machine Shop facing north. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A Massachusetts-based nonprofit is behind a billboard in downtown Spokane accusing Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of supporting policies they say would lead to slower, more expensive internet service.

The congresswoman from Spokane, who is also the fourth-ranking Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is the latest target of the group Fight for the Future.

The sign at Monroe Street and Mallon Avenue joins billboards in Oregon, South Dakota, California and elsewhere depicting GOP lawmakers who have publicly supported changes to federal rules governing the way internet service is regulated. The group says those changes would end “net neutrality” – the concept that internet service providers can’t block access or charge higher prices for certain types of content and how it’s accessed.

“We’re targeting those who publicly supported the repeal of these protections,” said Evan Greer, Fight for the Future’s campaign director. The group has called out McMorris Rodgers and other lawmakers for taking significant political contributions from telecommunication companies.

McMorris Rodgers has in the past supported the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to revisit a 2015 change to the way internet service providers are regulated. Under that rule change, made when Democrats controlled three of the commission’s five seats, broadband internet access was redefined as a public utility subject to closer scrutiny by regulators.

In a statement after the now-Republican-led FCC announced its intention to revisit the issue, McMorris Rodgers called the rule changes “a heavy-handed approach” to ensuring internet access for all.

“This is not a question of the merits of net neutrality – this is about the FCC ramming through a regulatory framework that treats high-tech communications like they’re a 1930s public utility,” McMorris Rodgers said in April. McMorris Rodgers’ office issued a similar statement in response to questions on this story, and the congresswoman was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Jared Powell, a spokesman for the congresswoman, said in a statement Tuesday the billboard showed Fight for the Future was “a political organization aimed at attacking Republican members of Congress.”

“The Congresswoman makes decisions based off of the best interest of people in Eastern Washington. Any claim to the contrary is absurd,” Powell said.

The regulatory changes could slow efforts to expand broadband internet access to rural areas, McMorris Rodgers and telecommunications companies have said. Others, including industry analyst Larry Downes, have argued in the Washington Post and elsewhere the change wrongly targeted local internet service providers as monopolies, citing figures from the FCC showing most American communities have at least two choices of in-home internet service, and at least three wireless providers.

Those who applauded the previous FCC ruling say that high-speed internet access has become a public good that needs to be protected from an industry that could pick winners and losers in their fee structure, slowing speeds and preventing access to certain websites and content without charging premiums. Earlier this summer, the Spokane City Council approved a resolution opposing the FCC’s plans, calling them a “rollback of net neutrality principles.”

City Council President Ben Stuckart, who dropped out of the 2018 Congressional race against McMorris Rodgers earlier this year, said he didn’t know about the billboard until it was shown to him on social media. Stuckart led the effort to get the net neutrality resolution before the council.

“I don’t think (providers) should be picking and choosing who the winners and losers are. That’s the antithesis of what we want out there,” Stuckart said. The council’s resolution was submitted to the FCC to consider before voting on the rule change, one of nearly 22 million comments the agency has received ahead of its vote. The comment period ends Wednesday.

Money for the billboards was raised through a crowdfunding effort, said Greer, Fight for the Future’s campaign director. She said the multitude of small donations funding the advertisements showed the populist support for current FCC rules.

“It’s definitely a way that the public can flex their political muscle, and show that the internet has political power,” Greer said.

The Spokane sign cost about $3,500 and was installed overnight Monday, Greer said. She would not say whether any of the donations came from Spokane. The expense has also not been reported to the Federal Elections Commission, because Fight for the Future is classified by the IRS as an organization primarily concerned with social welfare and thus able to engage in limited political activity while paying no taxes and not revealing donors.

Fight for the Future doesn’t file with the FEC because “we don’t endorse or campaign for candidates for office,” Greer said in an email.

Greer said Fight for the Future posts its financial statements online. The most recent IRS forms on their website date to 2015. The group also lists its major donors, which include the Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Media Democracy Fund.

Robert Maguire investigates the political activities of nonprofit groups for the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C.-based firm tracking money in politics. He said the Spokane billboard illustrates how advocacy groups toe the line on laws prohibiting nonprofits from making overt political statements.

“What they do is run ads like this that do not say vote for or vote against this particular person, but they portray them in a negative light,” Maguire said.

The billboard is similar to two others that appeared in Ohio and Oregon this week, singling out Republican Reps. Bob Latta and Greg Walden. Spokane’s billboard does not link McMorris Rodgers to a specific telecommunications company, but the other two list contributions from CenturyLink and Verizon to the congresswoman’s colleagues.

The ad reads, “Rep. McMorris Rodgers wants a slower, censored, and more expensive internet,” before urging passersby to call her downtown Spokane office and ask why. The billboard also indicates it was paid for by Fight for the Future.

Maguire said the unified message across all the billboards would likely protect the firm’s ad buys from any complaints they were trying to circumvent campaign finance rules to affect policy on a number of different issues, as other groups have done in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court case giving rise to political activities by nonprofits.

“This seems like an organization that has such a singular focus,” Maguire said.