Friday, July 25, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Netflix stacking the deck on Capitol Hill

'House of Cards' distributor accelerating own political efforts in Washington.

To be sure, Netflix doesn't have ruthless Frank Underwood advocating for its corporate interests.

But the "House of Cards" distributor is nonetheless building itself into a political force in Washington, D.C., where just about every denizen seemed to binge-watch the show's second season this weekend.

The video streaming and movie rental company invested $1.2 million in federal lobbying efforts during 2013 — more than twice its 2012 spending and nearly 10 times its 2010 spending, according to disclosures filed with the U.S. Senate and U.S. House. 

Much of Netflix's recent lobbying activity is focused on its support for "net neutrality," the notion that Internet service providers can't penalize certain content providers, such as those that use huge chunks of bandwidth, with slower connection speeds or extra fees.

The White House and Congress have both been targets of Netflix's governmental influence efforts.

"We're not politically driven. We're driven by a few core issues. We're there sticking up for what we believe is in the best interests of our customers," Netflix spokesman Jonathan Friedland told the Center for Public Integrity. "I would not look at our activity as a rocket ship as much as building a base ... we didn't even have a presence a few years ago."

In all, 17 lobbyists represented Netflix's interests to the federal government during 2013, 13 of whom have previous experience working for the government, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbying matters.

Among Netflix's lobbyists are Christopher Libertelli, a former senior adviser at the Federal Communications Commission; Lisa Kountoupes, former assistant director of the Office of Management and Budget; Shawn Whitman, former chief of staff to Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.; and Ed Barron, a former deputy chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Comparatively, well-known tech or entertainment companies such as Apple ($3.37 million) and eBay ($2.24 million) spent more than Netflix on federal lobbying in 2013, while others such as Live Nation Entertainment ($220,000) and SiriusXM Radio ($200,000) spent less.

Beyond lobbying, Netflix also recently created a political action committee, FLIXPAC, that donates money to politicians and political committees.

Recipients include the campaign and leadership PAC of Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.; the leadership PAC of Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt.; and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Federal Election Commission records show.

At the end of 2013, FLIXPAC reported having $6,918 to its name — a modest amount relative to many corporate PACs. Friedland says he's not sure whether the PAC intends to increase its fundraising and expenditures as the 2014 election cycle hits stride.

Several top Netflix employees also regularly contribute directly to political committees. Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings, who heavily favors Democrats, has spread tens of thousands of dollars among politicos including President Barack Obama; Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; and former Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

Hastings also contributed tens of thousands of dollars more to the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, according to federal campaign filings.

And it's not just Netflix showing financial interest in Congress. A handful of congressmen are also sweet on Netflix — when it comes to their investment portfolios.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., for one, owned at least $16,002, and as much as $65,000, worth of Netflix stock, according to his most recent personal assets disclosure. Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., owned up to $15,000.

Booker, meanwhile, owned at least $15,001, and as much as $50,000, in Netflix stock, a Center for Responsive Politics tally shows. He's also mentioned the company more than a few times on hisTwitter account — it boasts 1.45 million followers — and has tweeted his support for net neutrality.

Elected officials generally disclose the values of their assets in broad ranges.

The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, independent investigative news outlet. A list of its funders can be found here. For more of its stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org.

Dave Levinthal CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY
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