THE BLOG
09/10/2014 09:55 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

Net Neutrality, Civil Rights, and Big Telecom Dollars

Henrik Jonsson via Getty Images

You might not know it, but the reason you're able to read this article, the reason you found out about happened in Ferguson when you did and how you did, the reason you're able to participate in activism on the Internet, is because of the way the Internet has worked since its inception -- as an open platform free from corporate censorship and free from discrimination by gatekeepers at the network level.

This open nature of the Internet is again under attack, and it was years ago, with the corporate players behind the push using key voices in our community to further their interests, while at the same time undermining ours.

I actually thought this would be an old story given the sunlight that was shown four years ago during the 2010 Open Internet proceedings at the FCC. On display were the connections between civil rights organizations (like the NAACP, LULAC, National Urban League) who received significant funding from the big telecom players like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, and their policy positions favoring those companies.

But I guess four years is long time: long enough for some folks to forget, and long enough for the people and organizations implicated to brazenly go on offense.

David Honig, as I explained four years ago, is the man behind the curtain when it comes to civil rights organizations lining up behind telecom-friendly positions. David, and the organizations he has organized, are again advocating for fast and slow lanes on the Internet, a position that puts them in line with the interest of the large ISPs (Internet Service Providers), and in opposition to the communities they claim to serve.

While most of you have probably never heard of David, there is no more significant player in DC when it comes to telecom policy and the major civil rights organizations in this country. And the FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, who is leading the commission in determining the fate of the Internet, has treated David and his organization as legitimate.

As reporters recently began calling out the connections between his organization, MMTC (Minority Media and Telecommunications Council), civil rights groups, the telecom money they all receive, and their surprising policy positions, David responded by calling the reporting outrageous, insulting, and racist -- calling those pointing out the relationships a "digital lynch mob."

David then engaged Field Negro, a political blogger, to express his supposed outrage. Below is the letter I wrote to the blog in response, which Field Negro thankfully printed, in hopes of connecting the dots for those who have been confused (or misled). My goal in reprinting here is not only to dispel the false narrative being put forth by Honig, it's to shine a light on the greater dynamics in play around the deployment of our civil rights organizations in support of a corporate agenda that is not in line with the interests of our community. Here is the letter:

_______

Hello Field,

Thank you for allowing me to respond to a statement made by David Honig of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council that you published last week.

In David's statement, he attacked anyone who questioned the influence telecom money has had on the position his organization and other civil rights groups have taken against Net Neutrality, a position that aligns these groups with efforts by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to undermine an open Internet. But he goes further than that. He says it's insulting -- even racist -- to ask the questions being posed.

In reality, and David knows this, the circuit of which he is a part is awash in telecom and cable industry money, and all too often the voices of organizations that take industry money end up being aligned with policy positions that benefit the companies providing the money.

If David acknowledged that this dynamic exists, but disclosed who his backers are in a forthright manner and argued that he himself, his organization, and the civil rights organizations he's organized were an exception to the dynamic, he might have some credibility. Instead, he pretends like this dynamic doesn't exist; according to the Center for Public Integrity, he's been elusive about the millions he's taken from lobbyists, lawyers, and companies with business interests before the FCC; and instead of leading with an argument about how he's right, he (a white guy) accuses those shining a light on these issues of being racist.

Background

First, I want to acknowledge that I know David. Four years ago when I was the executive director of ColorOfChange, I researched the current state of the issue of Net Neutrality in depth (I understood it in the past, given my background as a software developer and architect, and from advocacy work I'd done on the issue in 2006), and ultimately ran a campaign that sought to expose the dynamics coming under scrutiny: civil rights groups (knowingly or not knowingly) taking policy positions that benefit their corporate backers, instead of the communities they represent. As part of the process, I met with David and also talked with the leadership of NAACP, LULAC, NCBCP and other organizations -- the context was the previous Net Neutrality proceeding before the FCC at the time.

This current debate is an escalation of that previous debate. Back then David organized several civil rights groups to sign onto comments that opposed Net Neutrality, including many of the core organizations currently opposing open Internet protections this time around.

At the time, Honig and other civil rights groups argued they support most open Internet protections but opposed efforts that would ban ISPs from discriminating online (see p.15 of their filing) -- i.e. allowing pay-for play fast lanes vs. slow lanes, the prevention of which is a central element of Net Neutrality -- because they claim it would hurt low income households. It could have the unintended consequences, they argued, of preventing ISPs from investing in broadband in poor communities. In other words, ISPs would invest in Black communities if they could make more money by discriminating online. It's a theory of trickle-down economics that has been debunked repeatedly.

The position MMTC and other civil rights groups staked out at the time perfectly matched the rhetoric and goals of the major ISPs who have backed them. And despite asking, I never heard David, the civil rights groups, or any of the front groups who've pushed these messages, succeed in making a cogent argument to back up their conclusions about how eliminating Net Neutrality would actually result in investment in the communities about which they purportedly care. Four years later, the groups are again making the same arguments, again right in line with the messaging and goals of AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.

Talking with the FCC and Hill staff

Over the years, I've talked with commissioners from the FCC, members of Congress, and their respective staff. There was a time when I thought it was important to explain how the arguments being peddled by groups like MMTC and the major civil rights groups didn't hold water -- that they were essentially vacuous arguments that happened to be in service of the interests of the ISPs. I quickly learned that those on the inside -- whether on Capitol Hill, at the FCC, or on K Street -- knew this. I was told that it wasn't about substance of the arguments; it was about the messenger. Groups like the NAACP, National Urban League, LULAC and others, placed enormous political pressure on the FCC by aligning themselves with the telecom companies. The FCC -- especially under Democratic control -- doesn't want to be seen as going against the wishes of minority groups. And this is why the approach the telecom industry uses is so effective.

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Tom Wheeler, the current FCC chair, when he visited the Bay Area. When I brought up the dynamic described above -- with civil rights groups carrying the trickle-down economics argument of the ISPs -- he acknowledged it to be a time-tested tactic, even cracking a joke about the sleight of hand being used by the ISPs to have others carry their water.

The greater dynamic in play

David and MMTC are not alone -- they are a part of much larger ecosystem. Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership (HTTP) has organized civil rights groups in the same manner, but with an emphasis on the Latino community. There are telecom industry consultants and lobbyists who serve on the boards of civil rights organizations and have been shown to use their position to influence. There are media figures that are actually paid by the corporations whose messages they repeat, while not disclosing their connection -- just this week, Kristal High, the founder and editor in chief of Politics365, a major MMTC apologist who has trolled the comments section of articles supporting the preservation of Net Neutrality, was exposed for being paid by the ISPs, without disclosing this fact. There are industry front groups (often called astro-turf groups) like Broadband for America -- claiming to be community-based and committed to achieving broadband access for communities of color, but in reality they are funded by telecom industry giants and are used to build grassroots support for policies friendly to them.

And, finally, there are paid lobbying firms that are used to go deep into our communities to gin up support for the position of the large telecom players, using the voice of local and state civil rights leaders (this I know because I was approached by a member of a DC lobbying firm that was paid to do this and personally carried out the work). Just search the FCC docket from four years ago for comments filed by MMTC, HTTP, and the organizations they represent, and you'll see the same message being repeated. You'll also see state and local NAACP and Urban League chapters repeating the same industry talking points, deployed by and fed language by DC advocacy firms that specialize in the quid pro quo exchange of money for policy support. So much for free-thinking and independent groups, as David likes to claim.

While this dynamic is understood by those working in the beltway, people outside of Washington remain largely unaware of the relationship between civil rights organizations and the interests of telecom industry players. That began to change in 2011 when Jarrett Barrios, the head of GLAAD, was forced to step down after the LGBT media exposed that the organization was influenced by an AT&T board member to support the AT&T-T-Mobile merger. It was also revealed that the AT&T board member got GLAAD to send a letter opposing Net Neutrality the previous year.

This scandal, for a moment, helped push the conversation about civil rights organizations and telecom companies outside the beltway, with the New York Times editorial page talking about GLAAD, the NAACP, and other civil rights organizations defending policy positions with weak arguments, while receiving big dollars from the companies that stand to benefit.

Why this matters

Before finishing, I wanted to say a bit about why Net Neutrality is important to low-income communities, and in particular communities of color. Over the course of history, each new medium to arrive has had the potential to enable everyday people to push back on power, to produce and distribute authentic messages coming from our communities, undisturbed by a corporate filter. And each has repeatedly been killed. For each medium -- radio, television, and print -- there was the promise of people-controlled media. Yet through media consolidation and barriers-to-entry created by larger corporations to prevent new players from entering, the promise was undone.

The Internet, thus far, has escaped the fate of these other media, largely because of Net Neutrality, which has governed the way content on the Internet is managed. Changing this is in the financial interest of the biggest ISPs (like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon), but it offers no benefit to consumers.

In the current Internet, Field Negro can say what he wants, ColorOfChange can knock media figures like Glenn Beck off a major network, and upstart news organizations can come in and challenge major incumbents -- because corporate filters and roadblocks haven't been a part of the landscape when it comes to the core design of the Internet. Similarly, all traffic is prioritized equally -- there are no slow lanes for content and application providers without a lot of money, and fast lanes for those with deep pockets who can afford to pay.

The courts have made clear that reclassifying broadband under Title II of the 1996 Telecommunications Act is the only way in the current regulatory landscape for the FCC to be on solid ground in attempting to exercise its authority to protect Net Neutrality rules.

Unlike four years ago, the major ISPs, as well as those repeating their arguments like MMTC, have moved away from straight-up opposing Net Neutrality. Now they say they're for it, but that Section 706 of the Act should be used instead of reclassification under Title II. The problem is that the courts have twice struck down the ability of the FCC to use that path for protecting the Internet, preventing fast lanes for those that can pay and slow lanes for those that can't. And that's the problem with the position of MMTC and the major civil rights groups. They now claim that they support Net Neutrality, but history shows it's likely to be meaningless without reclassification, and that relying on Section 706 cannot stop pay for play. Anyone who has studied the issue, presumably including David Honig, MMTC, and the civil rights organizations he's organized, understands that.

I think it's fine for corporations to advocate for policies that benefit them -- it's their job. However, it's the job of organizations that represent our communities to do just that -- represent our communities, not the interests of corporations with which they're financially aligned. These organizations, and the moral authority they claim to have (and should have) cannot be for sale.

The recent rash of articles to which Honig objects serve to strengthen our institutions by ensuring they're accountable. Shedding light on the dynamics in play -- dynamics that have the ability to undermine the integrity of our institutions, leaders, and messengers -- is critical, because in the end it is our community that is harmed by a lack of accountable leadership. It's why the presence of these articles is a great thing. And that's why David's response to the criticism he has received -- that it's insulting, even racist for anyone to raise questions about MMTC's or other civil rights organizations' behavior as described above -- lacks credibility and falls flat.

James