Leading civil rights groups who for many years have been heavily bankrolled by the telecom industry are signaling their support for Donald Trump’s promised rollback of the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules, which prevent internet service providers from prioritizing some content providers over others.
The Obama administration’s Federal Communications Commission established net neutrality by reclassifying high-speed internet as a regulated phone-like telecommunications service, as opposed to a mostly unregulated information service. The re-classification was cheered by advocates for a free and open internet.
But now Trump’s new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon attorney, is pushing to repeal the net neutrality reform by rolling back that re-classification — and he’s getting help not only from a legion of telecom lobbyists, but from civil rights groups.
In a little-noticed joint letter released last week, the NAACP, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, OCA (formerly known as the Organization for Chinese Americans), the National Urban League, and other civil rights organizations sharply criticized the “jurisdictional and classification problems that plagued the last FCC” — a reference to the legal mechanism used by the Obama administration to accomplish net neutrality.
Instead of classifying broadband as a public utility, the letter states, open internet rules should be written by statute. What does that mean? It means the Republican-led Congress should take control of the process — the precise approach that is favored by industry.
None of the civil rights groups that signed the joint letter responded to a request for comment.
It’s not the first time civil rights group have engaged in lobbying debates seemingly unrelated to their core missions, but in favor of their corporate donors. At a time when OCA received major funding from Southwest Airlines, the group filed a regulatory letter on behalf of the airline in support of Southwest’s bid to open flights at Houston airport. The NAACP, after receiving financial backing from Wal-Mart, helped the retail chain during its contentious bid to open stores in New York City.
Telecom issues, however, are a particular specialty. Last week’s letter was organized by the Multicultural Media, Telecom & Internet Council (MMTC), a group funded by the telecom industry that has previously encouraged civil rights groups to oppose net neutrality. MMTC in previous years reported receiving about a third of its budget from industry-sponsored events; its annual summit, which was held last week, was made possible by $100,000 sponsorships from Comcast and AT&T, as well as a $75,000 sponsorships from Charter Communications and Verizon.
MMTC, which acts on the needs of telecom lobbyists, has been accused of “astroturf lobbying” by creating the appearance of grassroots support for the industry.
The civil rights group opposed to net neutrality have employed several arguments against the proposal. In one filing made in 2010, the NAACP signed onto an argument from MMTC that net neutrality reforms were a waste of resources because the FCC should focus on “more pressing racial discrimination and exclusionary hiring and promotion practices of certain Silicon Valley high-tech companies.” In a separate filing in 2014, MMTC and the NAACP argued that reclassification would threaten the “fragile state of minority engagement in the digital ecosystem.”
While advocating against net neutrality, the organizations on the joint letter have raked in money from the telecom industry.
The NAACP, which signed letters opposing net neutrality both times the rule was proposed by the Obama administration, has named AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast as corporate fundraising partners. After the NAACP endorsed Comcast’s merger with NBC, Comcast disclosed that the NAACP was one of the the recipients of $1.8 billion in funds doled out to various community groups.
The Asian-American groups on the letter, including OCA and Americans Advancing Justice, have similar ties to the largest telecom firms. Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, a trade group for the telecom industry, are listed as members of the “Corporate Alliance” of donors funding AAJC. Comcast and Verizon sponsored OCA’s annual gala last year.
The National Urban League received $1.2 million from Verizon in 2014 alone. As the Center for Public Integrity reported, senior officials from AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have held positions on the National Urban League’s board.
Net neutrality activists are crying foul.
“Net neutrality is based on a communications law that guarantees vital nondiscrimination rights,” said Jessica J. González, the deputy director and senior counsel of Free Press. “This joint statement may seem innocuous but it actually endangers the communications rights that have empowered people of color to tell our own stories, organize for racial justice and earn a living online.”
“The Congress that tried to destroy net neutrality once would only weaken it with legislation that fails to adequately protect those it is meant to serve,” says Malkia Cyril, the executive director of the Center for Media Justice. She noted that the civil rights groups that signed the letter are now calling for putting the future of the internet “into the hands of a GOP Congress that just appointed white supremacist Jeff Sessions to be attorney general.”
Activists have expressed alarm at the pace at which Commissioner Pai has already axed reforms enacted by the Obama administration. In his first days as chairman, Pai rolled back an attempt to regulate overly expensive prison phone rates, got rid of the proposal to allow more competition for the cable box market, and blocked nine companies from providing low-income families with discounted high-speed internet services. Observers believe net neutrality is next.
But Kim Keenan, the president of MMTC, the group that organized the joint letter, has showered Pai with praise. “He is really focused on closing the digital divide. As an advocate, I feel so much pride that that it is a priority for his chairmanship,” Keenan told Multichannel News, a trade outlet.