What If AT&T Prevented You from Reading This Article?
Editor's Note: The following is the text of a powerful email sent by activist group Color of Change to its members, urging direct action against the telecoms' onslaught on Net Neutrality.
The Internet has made amazing things possible, like freeing the Jena 6, electing President Obama, even creating ColorOfChange. None of it could have happened without an "open" Internet: one where Internet service providers are not allowed to interfere with what is seen and by whom.
Now, Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon — the most powerful broadband providers — are trying to fundamentally change the way the Internet works. They're seeking to make even bigger profits by acting as gatekeepers over what you can see and do online. If they succeed, the Internet would be more like radio and television: a few major corporations would control which voices are heard most easily, and it would be much harder for grassroots groups, individuals, and small businesses to compete with large corporations and well-funded special interests.
The FCC wants to do the right thing and keep the Internet open, but the big providers have been attacking their efforts, with help from Black leaders who have financial ties to the industry. And a court ruling yesterday just made the FCC's job even tougher1. If the FCC is to preserve an open Internet, they will have to boldly assert their authority and press even harder. It's why they need to hear directly from everyday people, especially from Black folks, about the importance of an open Internet, now.
Can you join us in sending a message to the Federal Communications Commission supporting their effort to preserve an open Internet? It takes only a moment.
The FCC is working to create rules that would protect "net neutrality," the principle that protects an open and free Internet and which has guided the Internet's operation since it began. It guarantees that information you put online is treated the same as anyone else's information in terms of its basic ability to travel across the Internet. Your own personal website or blog can compete on equal footing with the biggest companies. It's the reason the Internet is so diverse — and so powerful. Anyone with a good idea can find their audience online, whether or not there's money to promote the idea or money to be made from it.
For Black folks, this is crucial. For the first time in history we can communicate with a global audience — for entertainment, education, or political organizing — without prohibitive costs, or mediation by gatekeepers in government or industry. That’s how ColorOfChange became successful: because of the low cost of starting up online, we could start small and grow without spending a lot of money. The strength of our ideas, not the size of our budget, determined our success. In television, radio and print, this can't happen, because access is determined by big media corporations seeking to turn a profit.
AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon are spending millions of dollars lobbying to create a new system where they can charge large fees to speed up some data while leaving those who can’t afford to pay in the slow lane.2 Such a system could end the Internet as we know it — giving wealthier voices on the Internet a much bigger megaphone than poorer voices, and stunting the Internet's amazing equalizing potential.
Buying the support of Black organizations?
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,3 and boasts of donating nearly $3 million over the last ten years to a number of Black-led organizations.4 Verizon, meanwhile, recently gave The National Urban League and the National Council of La Raza a $2.2 million grant.5 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),6 and the NUL’s 2008 annual report notes that Comcast donated over $1 million that year.7 Many of these groups have now filed letters with the FCC opposing or cautioning against net neutrality,8,9,10,11 and the Internet service providers are using the groups' support to promote their agenda in Washington.12,13
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 14 — 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 debunked15, 16 — it doesn’t make any sense from a business or economic perspective, and it doesn’t reflect history. 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,17 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.18 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 media19 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.
We’ve privately contacted each of the above organizations, and we’ve publicly called for them to explain their positions, twice.20,21 In each case, we've gotten nowhere.*
Now it's up to you
The FCC wants to do the right thing and implement net neutrality rules. FCC commissioners know, as we do, that the anti-net neutrality arguments coming from civil rights groups are bogus. But they don't want to appear to be on the wrong side of Black interests.22
We need to demonstrate that there's support among Black folks and our allies for protecting an open Internet. Please join us in telling the FCC that we support net neutrality.
You can add your voice here.
* 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 (see refs 8,10, and 11). 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.
1. "The Courts Can’t Take Away Our Internet," Save the Internet, 4-06-2010
2. "Threats to an Open Internet," Save the Internet
3. "NAACP Near Fund-Raising Goal with AT&T Campaign Leadership," AT&T, 7-16-2009
4."AT&T Launches 28 Days Campaign During Black History Month to Encourage, Inspire and Empower African Americans," AT&T, 2-1-2010
5. "VERIZON FOUNDATION INVESTS $2.2 MILLION IN PARTNERSHIP 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
6. “National Urban League and Comcast Announce Comprehensive Partnership Aimed at Improving Communities”, Comcast, 11-15-2007
7. “National Urban League 2008 Annual Report,” National Urban League, Retrieved 4-5-2010
8. Letter to the FCC signed by 20 Civil Rights Groups, 10-19-2009
9. FCC Filing signed by 16 Civil Rights Groups, 1-14-2010
10. Letter to the FCC signed by 23 Civil Rights Groups, 1-14-2010
11. Letters from NAACP local units to FCC opposing net neutrality
12. Email from US Internet Industry which uses the positions of civil rights groups to justify opposition to network neutrality, 12-3-2009
13. “AT&T Asks Employees To Oppose Net Neutrality,” Consumerist, 10-20-2009
14. "When Is the Cable ‘Buy’ Set to Come?" Wall Street Journal, 4-3-2008
15. "Why Consumers Demand Internet Freedom," Free Press, 5-2006
16. “Finding the Bottom Line: The Truth About Network Neutrality & Investment,” Free Press, 10-2009
17. "AT&T’s Earnings Rise 26%, Driven by Wireless," New York Times, 1-29-2010
18. "The 'American Consumer Institute' Doesn't actually represent consumers..." Broadband Reports, 8-22-2006
19. "Minority and Civil Rights Groups Slam Net Neutrality," Big Government, 1-25-2010
20. "Why Are Some Civil Rights Groups on the Wrong Side of Net Neutrality?" The Huffington Post, 1-28-2010
21. "Push-polling net neutrality," The Huffington Post, 2-10-2010