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Telecom-backed group defends anti-net neutrality robocalls to seniors

Telecom-backed group defends anti-net neutrality robocalls to seniors

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

California residents have been receiving robocalls over the past couple weeks telling them that net neutrality could slow data speeds and increase their phone bill, and encouraging them to oppose legislation that would reinstate the policy. The phone campaign generated nearly 3,000 calls to legislators, according to the group that orchestrated the phone campaign.

The group, the Civil Justice Association of California (CJAC), says it fights any legislation that could lead to excessive litigation, and in its view, that includes the net neutrality bill currently making its way through California’s legislature. The tough net neutrality bill would go beyond the now-repealed 2015 rules that prevented internet providers from blocking, throttling, or prioritizing data.

In a last-ditch effort to get the bill shot down, CJAC worked with other groups opposing the net neutrality legislation to pay for a robocall campaign that targeted several different demographics.

“I very seriously object to the [claim] that we are preying on them.”

One of those groups included the Congress of California Seniors for a robocall targeting senior citizens, as was first spotted by Motherboard earlier this week. The automated call said it included information “about your cellphone bill” and told recipients that the upcoming legislation “could increase your cell phone bill by $30 a month and slow down your data.” At the end of the call, it gave listeners the option to be transferred to their assembly member’s office to encourage them to vote against the net neutrality legislation.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, an author of the bill, said the call amounted to “misinformation” designed to “scare seniors with lies about financial security.”

John Doherty, president of CJAC, says that the campaign went out to more than just seniors. “I very seriously object to the [claim] that we are preying on them,” he said on a phone call. Doherty said seniors were targeted because the Congress of California Seniors was involved in the campaign, and they’re opposed to the net neutrality legislation. “They’re one of the population that we thought needed to know about the bill.”

Another robocall with different language was co-sponsored by the CalAsian Chamber, which represents Asian Pacific Islander-owned businesses in the state, according to a transcript of the call shared by CJAC. Doherty indicated there were other calls, including one from the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce. The CalAsian Chamber, California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, and Congress of California Seniors were not available for comment.

AT&T and Verizon keep showing up as supporters

While both AT&T and Verizon told ArsTechnica that they were not involved in these robocall campaigns, the two telecoms are listed as sponsors of each of these organizations. AT&T is a member of CJAC; the Congress of California Seniors has AT&T listed as a “key supporter,” and it had Verizon in that list until earlier this month; CalAsian counts Verizon, Charter, and Comcast as sponsors; and the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce has support from AT&T and Charter.

Verizon and AT&T offered us the same statements. “We are not supporting this effort in California. We are not involved and our company is not engaged,” a Verizon spokesperson said. “AT&T did not fund this robocall,” said an AT&T spokesperson. We’ve reached out to Charter and Comcast for comment. (Disclosure: Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company.)

Doherty says CJAC isn’t opposed to net neutrality, just this specific bill. “The way they’re going about it we’re convinced will increase costs to consumers and take away services that consumers like,” Doherty said. He homes in on the proposed ban on zero-rating, which is the practice of offering free data for some applications but not others, potentially giving an advantage to big companies that can pay to cut deals with internet providers.

That isn’t exactly what CJAC cares about, though. Its job is to lobby on behalf of people who could get sued by new laws — and in this case, that’s ISPs like AT&T. “The worry is that with this sort of level of small but very, very aggressive proponents, lawsuits will sort of be an evergreen cycle over what [this bill] would mean if it’s signed into law,” he said.

“I’ll be honest, it was commissioned by our side.”

Robocalls encouraging people to call their legislators are nothing new, but one of the reasons that CJAC’s calls gained attention was for the surprising statistic at the center of them: that California’s net neutrality legislation could raise phone bills by $30 per month. But it’s questionable whether that figure is right or even correctly stated. It’s sourced from a study on zero-rating that found that Californians whose only internet access comes from their smartphone “enjoy benefits as high as $30 per month” in reduced data costs. But the study didn’t say that removing zero-rating would necessarily increase anyone’s bill by $30.

It’s not clear how rigorously the figure was determined, either: the methodology seems to have just involved comparing self-reported data on people’s use of streaming services to data costs. The study’s author, David Sosa, was not immediately available to discuss the methodology.

AT&T shows up again here, too: the study was funded by CALinnovates, which counts AT&T as a member. “I’ll be honest, it was commissioned by our side,” Doherty says. But he contends it’s “intuitively obvious” that costs would go up.

California’s net neutrality bill would not just restore the net neutrality protections that were approved under President Obama, but it would actually go further by banning zero-rating of specific apps and services. The bill was already passed by the state Senate and could be voted on in the Assembly as early as today.