Back in January, ColorOfChange wrote an important and largely overlooked diary here on Daily Kos: Why Are Some Civil Rights Groups & Leaders On the Wrong Side of Net Neutrality?
The diary opened this way:
It’s said that politics creates strange bedfellows. I was reminded how true this can be when I traveled to D.C. in recent weeks to figure out why several advocacy groups and legislators with histories of advocating for minority interests are lining up with big telecom companies in opposition to the FCC’s efforts to pass "net neutrality" rules.
In a recent e-mail, ColorOfChange.org explained this seemingly odd turn of events:
...President Obama strongly supports net neutrality, and so do most members of the FCC. With so much at stake for Black communities, you would expect Black leaders and civic organizations to line up in support of an open Internet.
But instead, a group of Black civic organizations is challenging the adoption of net neutrality rules. Some of the groups are nothing more than front groups for the phone and cable companies. Others, however, are major civil rights groups — and all of them have significant financial ties to the nation’s biggest Internet service providers.
For example, AT&T donated half a million dollars last year to the NAACP and led a drive to raise $5 million more, and boasts of donating nearly $3 million over the last ten years to a number of Black-led organizations. Verizon, meanwhile, recently gave The National Urban League and the National Council of La Raza a $2.2 million grant. Comcast is one of the National Urban League’s "national partners" (Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen now sits on the NUL’s Board of Trustees), and the NUL’s 2008 annual report notes that Comcast donated over $1 million that year. Many of these groups have now filed letters with the FCC opposing or cautioning against net neutrality (see links below - mindoca) and the Internet service providers are using the groups' support to promote their agenda in Washington.
The main argument put forth by these groups is that net neutrality rules could limit minority access to the Internet and widen the digital divide. They say that unless we allow Internet service providers to make bigger profits by acting as gatekeepers online, they won’t expand Internet access in under-served communities. In other words, if Comcast — whose broadband Internet business was recently earning 80 percent profit margins — can increase its profits under a system without net neutrality, then it will all of a sudden invest in expanding Internet access in our communities.
This argument has been debunked — it doesn’t make any sense from a business or economic perspective, and it doesn’t reflect history (the e-mail provides sources for this - minodca). Expanding access to high speed Internet is an extremely important goal, and we are fully in support of it. But allowing the phone and cable companies to make more money by acting as toll-takers on the Internet has nothing to do with reaching that goal. Businesses invest where they can maximize their profits, period. Internet service providers are already making huge profits, and if they believed that investing in low-income communities made good business sense, they would already be doing it. The idea that making even more money is suddenly going to make them care about our communities is ridiculous.
When we’ve asked civil rights groups to back up their arguments against net neutrality, not a single one has been able to explain how they make any sense, without appealing to discredited, industry-funded studies. And no one can offer any evidence for the claim that protecting net neutrality will hurt efforts to expand Internet access.
Some of these civil rights groups are quick to say that they don’t really oppose net neutrality, they only intend to raise questions or concerns they deem important. But the "concerns" raised by these groups sound so similar to talking points from the Internet service providers that both the FCC and the news media have interpreted them as against net neutrality. And these organizations have done little or nothing to clarify the record.
We don't enjoy being in opposition to organizations like the NAACP, the Urban League, and the National Council of La Raza, organizations that have a history of doing great work that benefits our communities. But in this case, we don't have a choice. The digital freedoms that are at stake are a 21st century civil rights issue...
(all emphasis mine - mindoca)
Further on in the e-mail, ColorOfChange.org elaborates on its efforts to reach out to major civil rights groups:
...We’ve privately contacted each of the above organizations, and we’ve publicly called for them to explain their positions, twice. In each case, we've gotten nowhere... We reached out to National Council of La Raza through a partner twice. We reached out directly and through a partner to the National Urban League. We did not get a response from either group. We had several conversations with senior leadership at the NAACP, who explained that they wanted to be "neutral" on net neutrality. However, the NAACP has signed on to two letters warning the FCC about adopting net neutrality rules, and several NAACP chapters and state conferences have sent letters to the FCC that carry the industry message even more blatantly. The only public statement regarding the NAACP's "neutral" stance was a "tweet" on February 8th, after they were already under pressure, that stated: "A note to our friends in the blogosphere: The NAACP is NEUTRAL on net neutrality." The tweet was followed by no formal announcement, and nothing has been put into the public record to counter any of the anti-net neutrality filings or letters. We were in conversation with the NAACP for more than two months. We were told that the NAACP wanted to set the record straight, and were told of the concrete steps they planned to take. None were ever taken and eventually our attempts to follow-up went unanswered.
The footnotes in the e-mail provide some interesting reading. I've linked to a few and encourage you to read the rest:
"NAACP Near Fund-Raising Goal with AT&T Campaign Leadership," AT&T, 7-16-2009
"AT&T Launches 28 Days Campaign During Black History Month to Encourage, Inspire and Empower African Americans," AT&T, 2-1-2010
"Verizon Foundation Invests $2.2 million in Parntership with National Council of La Raza and National Urban League to Create After-School Education Program Using THINKFINITY.ORG" National Council of La Raza, 10-7-2008
Letter to the FCC Signed by 20 Civil Rights Groups 10-19-2009
FCC Filing Signed by 16 Civil Rights Groups, 1-14-2010
Letter to the FCC Signed by 23 Civil Rights Groups, 1-14-2010
Letters from NAACP Local Units to FCC Opposing Net Neutrality
Access to broadband and eliminating the digital divide are crucial issues for all marginalized and under-served communities and populations, everywhere in the world. This issue is not just about communities of color but about the disabled, the elderly, the poor, those who live in rural settings, and others.
I have spent much of my life engaged with the developing world and have seen the difference that other quasi-public goods (in economic parlance), such as electricity and potable water, have made in the lives of disadvantaged populations. I consider communications instructure to be in that same class of basic goods and services.
In this country, as many of you know, I have been a lifelong political volunteer, often working on campaigns in Hispanic/Latino communities and/or rural settings. I have experienced first-hand the limitations that lack of current generation communications infrastructure creates not just in electoral organizing, but in community empowerment and involvement, education, health, security, and, of course, daily life and work. I have also seen how "assumptions" about adoption of technology and demand for goods and services have underestimated these communities over and over. As a quick example, in the wireless space, empirical research shows that in the United States:
* By the age of 15, penetration among Hispanic teens is 64%. By the age of 17, the penetration rate rises to 78%.
* Hispanic teens are much more likely to use advanced telephony functions than other teens.
Even without going into a rash of comparative statistics with other sub-markets (Asian teens, White teens, etc.), it's easy to see that this market niche, historically often dismissed as not having the purchasing power to be worth marketing to/servicing, represents a feasible and lucrative business proposition, both in terms of number of users and demand for advanced value-added attributes and services.
So what can you do to help?
ColorOfChange.org has launched an online petition drive to augment its other efforts at ensuring that the assertions of these civil rights organizations not be invoked to justify the position of the major broadband providers. The money paragraph in the pre-penned letter that you will sign (you can add a personal message as well) captures the false dichotomy in a nutshell:
I agree that expanding broadband access in under-served communities is essential. However, there is no conflict between expanding access and preserving an open Internet. We can and must do both.
With this past week's court ruling potentially complicating the path to victory on net neutrality, it's a critical moment to to ramp up efforts to garner support from all possible quarters and sectors.
I urge anyone who suppports civil and economic rights for the under-served, and who understands the incontrovertible importance of net neutrality for all under-represented voices, to join the campaign and send a message to the FCC. Please also forward the e-mail and link liberally to family and friends, and via Facebook and Twitter. And finally, I hope that Black Kos, as well as external blogs with influence in communities of color, in particular, will pick up this story and run with it. I'd be happy to cross-post anywhere that would be helpful.