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How big wireless lobbied governments to build 5G for citizen data collection and surveillance

While selling 5G technology to the public as a means for faster downloads, Big Wireless — comprising a web of telecom companies, lobbyists and law firms– is spending millions to lobby governments the world over to implement the next generation of cellular technology because of its potential for data collection and surveillance of citizens.

by Derrick Broze 

Part 3 - Who’s Behind the Race to 5G? 

For the last year, Americans have been peppered with messages from telecommunications companies and the tech industry at large, stressing the importance of being first in the Race to 5G. We are told if we want driverless vehicles, robot assistants, cleaner and safer cities, and more convenient lives we must support and pay for the upgrades to 5G. Apparently, the public should also ignore the fact that this upgrade has sparked lawsuits over health, privacy, and local power concerns. But beyond being a lackluster marketing campaign to convince the public to adopt the next generation of cell phones and devices, what exactly is this race about?

Geopolitically speaking, the Race to 5g describes the ongoing rift between the U.S. and China, the new digital Cold War where these two superpowers race to implement the next generation of cellular technology because of its potential for massive profit and massive data collection.

The American mainstream media and President Trump have stated that Chinese company Huawei could use their 5g infrastructure to spy on Americans. Additionally, Trump has called on federal officials and American companies to abandon Huawei equipment. In January Foreign Policy wrote, “Because the (Chinese) companies that make the equipment are subservient to the Chinese government, they could be forced to include backdoors in the hardware or software to give Beijing remote access. Eavesdropping is also a risk, although efforts to listen in would almost certainly be detectable.

This fear of Chinese spying using 5g equipment completely ignores the reality that the U.S. government has the same exact opportunity to pressure American companies to spy on the private data of Americans. Foreign Policy noted, “These insecurities are a result of market forces that prioritize costs over security and of governments, including the United States, that want to preserve the option of surveillance in 5G networks. If the United States is serious about tackling the national security threats related to an insecure 5G network, it needs to rethink the extent to which it values corporate profits and government espionage over security.

Whether the public is actually demanding faster downloads is up for debate, but what is not debatable is that the telecoms, global governments, and the tech industry are pushing the shift towards 5g. While it is true that 5g has the potential to spur on innovation in the fields of medicine, manufacturing, entertainment, and other industries – it seems much of the hype around the 5G rollout is coming from the telecommunication industry itself, specifically the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, or CTIA.

Established in 1984, the CTIA claims to represent the U.S. wireless communications industry, from carriers and equipment manufacturers. The CTIA “advocates for legislative and regulatory policies at federal, state, and local levels that foster the continued innovation, investment and increasing economic impact of America’s wireless industry. CTIA is active on a wide range of issues including spectrum policy, wireless infrastructure, and the Internet of Things, among others.” They also host events on topics ranging from cybersecurity to 5G.

The CTIA’s Board of Directors includes the presidents, CEOs and other senior officials of Verizon, Sprint, T Mobile, Nokia, Erricson, Intel, General Motors, Tracfone, EZ Texting and others. Brad Gillen, the current Executive Vice President of the CTIA, was formerly a Legal Advisor to a former FCC Commissioner and served in other senior policy roles at the FCC and with DISH Network. Mr. Gillen was also a partner at Wilkinson Barker Knauer, LLP, a law firm stacked with former employees of the FCC, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and other state government positions.

The CTIA’s current President and CEO is Meredith Attwell Baker. Baker has spent the last two decades bouncing between lobbying for the telecoms and working for the government. From 1998 to 2000, Baker worked as Director of Congressional Affairs at the CTIA. From 2004 to 2007 she served under the Bush administration as Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and Acting Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The NTIA is the President’s principal advisor on telecommunications and information policy. Afterwards, she worked for the U.S. government as an FCC Commissioner between July 2009 to June 2011. During her tenure at the FCC she was vocal about her opposition to net-neutrality regulations. In January 2011, she voted in favor of Comcast purchasing NBCUniversal. Only four months later she would leave the FCC to take her position as senior vice president of government affairs at Comcast-NBCUniversal. Finally, in 2014 – after spending a decade bouncing between lobbying for industry and working for the government – Baker went back to the CTIA, where she is now President and CEO, responsible for promoting the Race to 5G.

One of the ways the CTIA has spread enthusiasm for the Race to 5g is by working with city officials. The CTIA has honored City Mayors who have worked to erode local authority regarding the 5g roll out. The 5G Wireless Champion Awards “honor the state and local officials” who “bring next-generation 5G networks” into communities and “remove barriers to the deployment of next-generation wireless infrastructure”. In 2018, the CTIA gave out 3 “5g Wireless Champion Awards” to mayors across the United States, including Houston’s Mayor Sylvester Turner.

The 5G Wireless Champion Awards are but one example of how the CTIA lobbies on behalf of the telecommunications industry, sometimes derisively known as Big Wireless. The industry has achieved the nickname due a revolving door between the government agencies designed to regulate the cellular industry  – namely, the Federal Communications Commission – and the industry itself. This arrangement has allowed the telecoms to grow while facing little legal challenges or roadblocks. In the process, this incestuous relationship has overtaken the voices and concerns of the American people.

A 2015 expose published by investigative journalist Norm Alster for the Harvard Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics details the financial ties between the FCC and telecom companies and how the industry has direct access and power over the agency meant to regulate it. The report, “Captured Agency: How the Federal Communications Commission is Dominated by the Industries it Presumably Regulates”, details how the FCC, an independent government agency created in 1934 to regulate interstate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable, has become a captured agency with Big Wireless leaders filling the government seats in a revolving door fashion similar to other federal agencies.

Regarding the passing of the 1996 Telecom Act – the act meant to regulate the developing mobile phone and internet infrastructure – Alster writes,

                         Late lobbying won the wireless industry enormous concessions from lawmakers, many of them major recipients of industry hard and soft dollar contributions. Congressional staffers who helped lobbyists write the new law did not go unrewarded. Thirteen of fifteen staffers later became lobbyists themselves.

Alster states that direct lobbying by industry is “just one of many worms in a rotting apple”. His report says the FCC is involved in a network of powerful moneyed interests with limitless access and a variety of ways to shape policy. Alster believes the worst part is that the wireless industry has been allowed to grow unchecked and virtually unregulated, with fundamental questions on public health routinely ignored. The Captured Agency report makes it clear that this type of corruption takes place because of “the free flow of executive leadership between the FCC and the industries it presumably oversees”.

For example, at the time of the report’s release, the Chairman of the FCC was Tom Wheeler, a man with deep ties to the wireless industry. In 2013, Wheeler was nominated as FCC chairman by former President Barack Obama after raising more than $700,000 for his presidential campaigns. Wheeler led the two most powerful industry lobbying groups: The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) and the CTIA. In 20, Wheeler was also the head of the FCC during the debate around Net Neutrality.

Ajit Pai, current chairman of the FCC, is another example of this revolving door relationship. Pai is an attorney who served as Associate General Counsel at Verizon Communications Inc. between 2001 and 2003, where he handled competition and regulatory matters. Pai was appointed to the FCC by Barack Obama in 2012 and then made FCC Chairman by Donald Trump in January 2017. In an odd skit.

In February, Pai admitted that the FCC failed to protect Americans’ privacy after it was revealed that at least two companies were gaining access to Americans’ private data and selling it to law enforcement. Pai called for a fine of over $200 million on AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint. “This FCC will not tolerate phone companies putting Americans’ privacy at risk,” Pai stated when announcing the fine.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr is yet another example of a government official working closely with industry and maintaining relationships which clearly present conflicts of interest. Carr is credited with accelerating the 5G build out. Prior to joining the FCC, Carr worked as an attorney at Wiley Rein where his clients were Verizon, AT&T, Centurylink, and CTIA.

The Wiley Rein law firm is a hotbed of activity for former government officials and industry regulars. One of the founders of the law firm is Richard Wiley, himself a Former FCC Chairman. According to Open Secrets, in the first four months of 2020 the Wiley Rein law firm has been retained by several telecoms, including AT&T for $80,000, the CTIA for $50,000, and Verizon for $30,000. For the last 15 years the law firm has spent at least $2 million dollars lobbying for their clients. Open Secrets also shows the CTIA has spent $3 million on their own lobbying efforts.

On September 30, 2019, Commissioner Carr and other FCC officials were in Houston to discuss the future of 5G. I interviewed Commissioner Carr about the concerns regarding his connections with the wireless industry, as well as the implications of the Captured Agency report released by Harvard’s School of Ethics. Unfortunately, Mr Carr had no interest in addressing these questions and refused to answer my questions and only stated, “We’re excited about the 5G build out and working with local leaders.

The silence from FCC officials on the charges of corrupted regulators and ignored studies is simply another facet of the relationship between industry and government. Again, the strongest influence over the U.S. regulatory agencies can be traced to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.

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