Sometimes friends disagree
President Obama came out this week in full support of net neutrality rules, announcing that a free and open Internet was as critical to Americans’ lives as electricity and should be regulated like those utilities to protect consumers. Obama’s statement paves the way for the Federal Communications Commission to adopt tighter rules to prevent broadband companies from blocking or intentionally slowing down legal content and from allowing content providers to pay for a fast lane to reach consumers.
This approach also puts Obama at odds with several civil rights groups, including the National Urban League, the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council and Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. The civil rights groups believe treating wired and wireless broadband service could slow broadband adoption, lead to increased prices and choke innovation. Republicans who are against the president’s net neutrality vision are now citing opposition by the civil rights groups, including the NAACP, as a reason the FCC should reject stricter regulations.
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has been working on plans to protect the open Internet. At stake is whether the Internet will be treated like a public utility, like electricity, or like a more costly luxury, such as cable television. Several civil rights groups, however, wanted to leave the door open, allowing internet service providers to report any practices that would change consumers’ and content providers’ “relationship” with networks. This would give the FCC the ability to intervene on a case-by-case basis.
“This approach to the Internet, first chartered with bipartisan support during the Clinton Administration, has created 945,000 jobs for workers of color in the broadband sector and an overall “app economy” that supports another 750,000 jobs a year,” wrote Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, wrote in a Oct. 15 blog post on thehill.com. Morial and others are calling for the FCC to use its existing authority to regulate the internet, and added treating it like a public utility is an “extreme approach.”
Morial’s position — and that of his social justice allies — is more in line with what big telecom companies want, prompting net neutrality activists to accuse the civil rights groups, including the Urban League, of selling out.
“In its filings with the FCC, the National Urban League acknowledges its close working and philanthropic relationships with the biggest phone and cable companies. (On its own site, Comcast touts its partnership with the National Urban League and notes that it’s given the group $12 million in free airtime.) The National Urban League, its local chapters, and some traditional civil rights groups have repeatedly cited the philanthropic donations made by the big ISPs as a reason the government should approve mega-merger after mega-merger. Many groups are making this argument in the pending Comcast-Time Warner Cable and AT&T-DIRECTV deals,” wrote Craig Aaron and Joseph Torres for Freepress.net. “So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some civil rights groups are aligned with the policy positions these corporations are pursuing, including opposing strong and enforceable Net Neutrality rules.”
It should be noted that not all civil rights groups oppose the president’s plan. Color of Change, which advocates on behalf of black Americans, supports the public utility option. So do civil rights icons including John Lewis and John Conyers, both members of the U.S. House of Representatives. But when it comes to net neutrality, legacy groups like the NAACP, Rainbow/PUSH, MMTC, the Urban League and the president are on opposite sides of the spectrum (apologies for the pun). Sometimes friends disagree. But this isn’t just a difference in opinion. What the FCC decides will impact the way journalists and other content producers provide and deliver information, and it will also impact how our audiences consume our products. Besides, when it comes to politics, there’s no such thing as permanent friends, or permanent enemies. Case in point, even conservatives back the president’s plan.
Obama has other pals anyway. Within minutes of the president’s video release of his message expressing support for treating the Internet like a public utility, lawmakers across the country began tweeting their support.
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) November 10, 2014
— Richard Blumenthal (@SenBlumenthal) November 10, 2014
— Bill de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio) November 10, 2014
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) November 10, 2014
— Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) November 10, 2014
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) November 10, 2014