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James Rucker

James Rucker

Posted: December 6, 2010 02:34 PM

Last Wednesday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski proposed Network Neutrality rules that he claims will save the open Internet.

As another FCC commissioner has attested, these rules will do no such thing. Instead, they will allow the big broadband companies, like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, to erect toll booths on the Internet that will result in segregated online communities where wealthy content and application providers will pay a premium for carriage, with everyone else discarded to a secondary, lower quality tier.

Such a policy would be disastrous for the Black community. Today, the Internet — unlike cable television, broadcast radio, or print — is the sole medium where we can communicate with each other nationally and globally, pushing back on the political and social status quo without the interference of corporate gatekeepers.

If Chairman Genachowski succeeds in letting the big phone and cable players carve up the Internet, the day will come when many in the civil rights community will realize and regret their role in making it happen.

Net neutrality is a core principle that is largely responsible for the Internet being such a powerful and transformative tool. It requires that content gets carried by Internet service providers with the same priority and speed regardless of the sender. It's the way the Internet has worked since the beginning. Those who are arguing for net neutrality are simply trying to maintain the status quo — a status quo that has enabled the Internet to flourish in a way that no other communications technology has.

Without net neutrality, Google, Facebook, the Huffington Post and MoveOn.org would not exist; neither would Barack Obama be President. And it's an open Internet that has made the campaigns that we've run at ColorOfChange possible — everything from holding Fox News accountable for the likes of Glenn Beck, to stripping away Beck's advertisers, to telling the story of the Jena 6, or advocating for the rights of Katrina survivors.

For over a year, several of the most prominent civil rights groups have been aligned with AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast — whether knowingly or not — in those companies' efforts to end net neutrality. But they have not acted alone. In my conversations with many groups and individuals inside the Beltway, one man emerges as the nerve center for much of the action we've seen on the part of the civil rights groups. His name is David Honig.

David is the executive director of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC). He is in many ways the face and voice for Black America in Washington, D.C. on Internet issues, and perhaps the most influential person from the civil rights community representing our interests on media and telecom policy.

For years, national civil rights groups have relied on his counsel on what positions to take on key communications issues. And for years, he has been regarded as an honest and helpful broker when it came to addressing broadcasting issues.

But when it comes to Internet policy, David is writing a new and different chapter. Over the past couple of years, Honig's positions and statements seem to align him with the phone and cable companies who are set on undermining the open nature of the Internet. And those statements repeatedly appear in filings endorsed by the major civil rights groups. In my opinion, Honig is leading many of the respected civil rights groups he is advising off of the digital cliff.

Two weeks ago, I made a fact-based argument in a letter to House Majority Leader Pelosi about my concerns regarding a Black member of Congress, who has been aligned with AT&T and Comcast in opposing net neutrality and is vying for a subcommittee post with oversight over the Internet. The Congressman's response was to attack me personally, and to side-step my arguments.

Shortly thereafter, Honig and his organization appeared on a letter with every civil rights and black legislative group you can imagine to counter my letter with their own letter to Pelosi (Honig has organized groups around letters and FCC filings in the past; I presume this time is no different).

Did they engage any of the arguments I put forth? No. Not one.

After personally attacking me for allegedly being "uncivil," Honig then asserted that the Congressman's "position is on all fours with the Open Internet policy endorsed by the labor unions, all the minority intergovernmental organizations and virtually every national civil rights organization except ColorofChange."

Honig doesn't mention that he himself has been a driving force in getting these organizations to sign on to letters of support for the policy he mentions, and, in my opinion, using weak and debunked arguments. He also doesn't mention that the groups to which he's referring have been recipients of millions of dollars from AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast (I don't know if MMTC has received financial support from AT&T, Verizon or Comcast, but if it has, it should disclose that as well). While one can argue that these dollars don't have influence, the disclosure is important when making such statements, as is providing a characterization of an organization's funding picture and any other evidence to show how these dollars don't introduce influence.

Along with many others, I have written pieces here and elsewhere that have described the relationship between corporate dollars from AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, advocacy groups, and Black members of Congress. And I've deconstructed the core, faulty logic in the arguments carried by these messengers: that if we let these large corporations have their way and do away with net neutrality, they'll take their increased profits and suddenly invest in our communities where they traditionally haven't (historically they simply haven't done so, despite already seeing profit margins as high as 80 percent). It's a cynical trickle-down argument that defies the basic logic of how businesses operate. And it's the core sentiment that seems to anchor the anti-net neutrality statements in the filings and statements authored by Honig.

Some in Honig's camp also like to say that net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem. To say that, or to defend someone else's doing so, is to ignore statements made by the major players expressing their desire for a tiered system; instances where they've been caught attempting to censor or control content and applications on the Internet; and the obvious business incentives the companies have for doing so.

I'm interested in an honest debate and discussion about this issue but I still can't find, after almost a year of trying, arguments that hold water or that justify the civil rights groups' opposition to net neutrality. I've also had the good fortune of talking with David Honig directly and will continue to do so, but none of the arguments he has presented to me thus far have altered my perspective on the core issues I've raised here and elsewhere. In the meantime, I hope to get as much sunlight as possible on the dynamics I see in play.