Big phone and cable companies are attacking the free and open Internet – and some Black members of Congress are helping them do it.
Ten members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) recently signed a letter to the FCC attacking net neutrality, the principle that prevents Internet service providers from discriminating online. All of these members have taken thousands in campaign contributions from the telecom industry.
We’ve seen this before – but this summer is a crucial time when the FCC will choose to either protect Internet freedom, or allow phone and cable companies to take unprecedented control over what we see, do, and say online.
We need to hold these representatives accountable, and make sure the FCC and other members of Congress know they don’t speak for Black people on this issue.
What’s at stake
Net neutrality has made the Internet a level playing field for all voices, allowing Black bloggers, activists, and entrepreneurs to flourish online despite being blocked out of ownership and participation in traditional media. Now, these CBC members are using deceptive arguments to help giant corporations attack net neutrality, and claiming that they speak for Black America.
The FCC is now considering reclassifying Internet service as a public utility, which would give it strong authority to enforce net neutrality for the public good.1 Thankfully, some Black members of Congress are fighting to protect net neutrality — Rep. Keith Ellison co-authored a letter to the FCC supporting reclassification, and it was signed by Reps. Barbara Lee, John Lewis, John Conyers, Donna Edwards, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Charlie Rangel, Bobby Scott, and Andre Carson.2
But the phone and cable companies are fighting this tooth and nail, calling in favors from organizations and members of Congress they’ve supported financially for years. Sadly, some civil rights organizations and Black members of Congress are attacking net neutrality with dishonest and deceptive arguments handed to them by the telecom lobby. Ten members of the CBC recently signed Rep. Gene Green’s letter to the FCC attacking reclassification (Reps. Bobby Rush, G.K. Butterfield, Sanford Bishop, Corrine Brown, Lacy Clay, Alcee Hastings, Gregory Meeks, David Scott, Bennie Thompson, and Marc Veasey).3 The letter claims to support Internet freedom while doing everything it can to undermine it.
Dishonest and deceptive arguments against net neutrality
The telecom lobby, echoed by some Black members of Congress and civil rights organizations, has argued 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 margins4 — 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 debunked5, 6 — 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,7 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.
The truth is that reclassifying Internet service as a public utility would actually help the FCC close the digital divide by allowing it to subsidize Internet access for low-income Americans.8
Buying the support of Black members of Congress
All of the CBC members attacking net neutrality have taken large amounts of campaign money from the telecom industry, with some taking tens of thousands of dollars in just the last two elections.
And it’s not just campaign money — since just 2008 the telecom lobby has spent millions on donations to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute (CBCI), nonprofit organizations associated with the CBC.9,10 These organizations claim that their purpose is to provide scholarships, educate the public, and develop new leaders. But the corporate money also funds lavish galas to honor members of the CBC,11 and top lobbyists from the telecom industry sit on the boards and committees of the CBCF and CBCI.12
This year, the CBCF “honored” Comcast with its “Distinguished Corporation Award”;13 last year, it was Time Warner.14 Comcast touted its award to Congress earlier this year while seeking approval for its merger with Time Warner.15
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen CBC members carry water for big telecom corporations. Many of the CBC members who signed Rep. Green’s recent letter to the FCC have signed similar letters before, and cast votes against net neutrality. And many of these members have been loyal allies to the industry on other issues as well.
- In October 2009, Congressman Gregory Meeks collected 70 signatures from his colleagues on an industry-backed letter designed to weaken support for Internet freedom.16
- In 2011, Congressman G.K. Butterfield worked with Congressman Gene Green to organize Democratic support for AT&T’s merger with T-Mobile.17
- Congressman Bobby Rush has attacked net neutrality many times, since at least 2006.18 And in addition to campaign contributions, Rush has taken more than $1.7 million from the telecom lobby through his charitable organizations.19 $1 million of that money came from AT&T and was supposed to support a technology center in Rush’s district. Rush has recently come under scrutiny because that money is now gone, with no tech center to show for it, and Rush unable to explain where the money went.20
These are just a few of many examples.
We’ve called out these members for their attacks on Internet freedom. In 2010 we ran a similar campaign demanding that CBC members stop attacking net neutrality. And we’ve made progress — fewer Black representatives are now carrying water for the telecoms.
In 2011, thousands of ColorOfChange.org members signed petitions and made phone calls asking House Democratic leadership to prevent Congressman Rush from securing a key committee position that would have allowed him to do even more damage to net neutrality.21 Because of our actions, Rush didn’t get the position.22
Nevertheless, Rush and other Black representatives have continued to use their status as members of the Congressional Black Caucus — which is supposed to advocate for the interests of Black America — to attack net neutrality. It’s unacceptable and dangerous: not only does this kind of influence peddling threaten the Internet as a medium where Black voices and ventures have an equal shot; it also undermines the credibility and power of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has historically been a critically important voice for Black America.
Now is the time to raise our voices again and make it clear that these representatives don’t speak for us on this issue. If enough of us speak out, we can make sure that all Black representatives know there will be a price to pay for betraying Internet freedom — and that if they fight for net neutrality, they’ll have our support. And by speaking out now, we can make sure the FCC knows how important net neutrality is to Black America.
Thanks and Peace,
–Rashad, Arisha, Matt, Aimée, Dallas and the rest of the ColorOfChange.org team
July 1st, 2014
Help support our work. ColorOfChange.org is powered by YOU—your energy and dollars. We take no money from lobbyists or large corporations that don’t share our values, and our tiny staff ensures your contributions go a long way.
1. “Net Neutrality and Reclassification: A Fact Sheet,” Voices for Internet Freedom, 2014
2. “Ellison, Grijalva Lead Letter to FCC Chairman Demanding Net Neutrality,” Press Release from Office of Rep. Keith Ellison, 5-14-2014
3. “Green letter warns against destructive consequences of a Title II reclassification,” The Citizen, 5-14-2014
4. “When Is the Cable ‘Buy’ Set to Come?” Wall Street Journal, 4-3-2008
5. “Why Consumers Demand Internet Freedom,” Free Press, 5-2006
6. “Finding the Bottom Line: The Truth About Network Neutrality & Investment,” Free Press, 10-2009
7. “AT&T’s Earnings Rise 26%, Driven by Wireless,” New York Times, 1-29-2010
8. “The Truth About the Third Way: Separating Fact from Fiction in the FCC Reclassification Debate,”
9. “Telecom Giants Paid Millions To ‘Honor’ Minority Lawmakers Before The Merger,” Huffington Post, 2-22-2014
10. “AT&T enriches lawmakers’ pet charities,” Politico, 6-1-11
11. “In Black Caucus, a Fund-Raising Powerhouse,” New York Times, 2-13-2010
12. See reference 10.
13. “CBCF Honors Rep. Eva Clayton, Comcast NBCUniversal and LBJ Library,” Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, 2-26-2014
14. “Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Honors Time Warner,” Time Warner, 3-1-2013
15. Comcast and Time Warner Joint Statement to the Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, 5-8-2014
16. Rep. Gregory Meeks’ 2009 Letter to FCC, 8-15-2009
17. “Did AT&T Lie to Your Representative?,” Free Press, 8-23-2011
18. “Buying Bobby Rush,” Republic of T, 9-21-2006
19. “The Utility Man,” Better Government Association, 12-12-2013
20. “The Million Dollar Question,” Better Government Association, 12-12-2013
21. “Net Neutrality Group Slaps Back at AT&T-Funded Lawmaker,” Wired, 11-22-2010
22. “Accountability: Who Else Will Go the Way of Congressman Bobby Rush?” ColorOfChange.org Founder James Rucker in Huffington Post, 1-26-2011