Adam Polaski

Examining Other Minority Groups' Opposition to Net Neutrality, Support of AT&T Merger

Filed By Adam Polaski | June 12, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: AT&T, Brent Wilkes, FCC filings, Genachowski, GLAAD, Laura Berry, LULAC, NAACP, Net Neutrality, NGLCC

AT&T.jpgMuch of the focus on organizations endorsing the AT&T/T-Mobile merger this week has been on GLAAD, and not without reason - the organization seriously bungled correspondence with the Federal Communications Commission in January 2010, an incident that informs a close relationship with AT&T.

Bil Browning found on Friday that GLAAD's Jan. 4, 2010 letter to the FCC was a verbatim statement from AT&T that GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios did not write, read, or sign before sending to the FCC. AT&T's letter opposed net neutrality, the much discussed debate over whether Internet service providers can arbitrarily restrict access to certain networks, websites, or types of content. AT&T opposes net neutrality, but GLAAD has indicated its support for net neutrality principles.

But many other organizations with little obvious interest in net neutrality and the effects of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger have also weighed in on both subjects. This week Politico reported on the trend of socially liberal organizations with large financial backing from AT&T publicly endorsing the merger.

Many of those same organizations - including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce - also filed letters with the FCC in late 2009 and early 2010 cautioning the FCC to carefully consider net neutrality regulations before approving them. Each of the organizations filed their letters to the FCC within a few days of GLAAD's Oct. 13, 2009 and Jan. 4, 2010 letters.

Since GLAAD's Jan. 4 letter was written entirely by AT&T, it is not inconceivable that other organizations that are funded by AT&T and have endorsed the merger also submitted letters containing language suggested by AT&T. AT&T has a history of asking its employees to submit letters opposing net neutrality, providing a series of suggested talking points. The Bilerico Project spoke with representatives from the NGLCC and LULAC, who both said that AT&T did not have a hand in the language of their FCC letters.

A Flurry of Letters to the FCC

In September 2009, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced plans to expand net neutrality principles at the Brookings Institute, which blogged about his appearance:

The Chairman said he wanted all six neutrality principles to be adopted as formal FCC rules, not just enforcement guidelines, and to extend to any Internet service, even if delivered over wireless networks. The latter represents the first time a FCC chairman has expressed support for expanding these rules to mobile providers.

The six neutrality principles are:

  • Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice
  • Consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement
  • Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network
  • Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.
  • A provider of broadband Internet access service must treat lawful content, applications, and services in a nondiscriminatory manner
  • A provider of broadband Internet access service must disclose such information concerning network management and other practices as is reasonably required for users and content, application, and service providers to enjoy the protections specified in this rule-making

The FCC Chairman's statements at the Brookings Institute represented a strong vote of confidence in support of net neutrality. The letters from the NAACP, LULAC, NGLCC, GLAAD, and other organizations in October 2009 and January 2010 seem to have been responding to the burgeoning support for net neutrality regulations. It is likely that the October letters were seeking to influence the FCC's Oct. 22, 2009 vote on Genachowski's proposed net neutrality rules. The FCC's public comment period on preserving an open Internet was originally scheduled to end on Jan. 14, 2010 (it was later extended until April 2010).

NAACP.jpgSeveral branches of the NAACP filed letters, and each urges the FCC to cautiously consider the effects of net neutrality regulations. The Lee County branch submitted one on Oct. 14, 2009, the Riverside branch submitted on Jan. 5, 2010, and the Metuchen-Edison area branch submitted on Jan. 11, 2010. Several other NAACP letters were also submitted.

The letters all express similar sentiments against net neutrality. The NAACP-Riverside Branch's letter, signed by W.E. Rucker-Hughes, reads:

While I support the Commission's goal of maintaining a free and open Internet, I am concerned that imposing a network neutrality rule will negatively impact the ability of minority communities to access broadband networks. ... If network neutrality is enacted, it will necessitate the raising of prices on high-speed Internet, making it even more difficult, or even impossible, for minority and underserved communities to get online.

LULAC's Stance

LULAC submitted two letters - one on Oct.14, 2009 and one on Jan. 14, 2009. The first, filed by LULAC State Director Joe Cardenas, encouraged broadband proliferation while urging against net neutrality. It concluded, "LULAC urges Chairman Genachowski to put aside net neutrality regulations and instead focus on closing the digital divide once and for all."

A second letter was filed by LULAC National Executive Director Brent Wilkes in January. His letter expresses "general support of the majority of the FCC's proposed rules," singling out the fifth principle of nondiscrimination as a cause for concern.

The letter reads:

If the nondiscrimination rule prevents application service providers from sharing in the cost of deploying the next generation of broadband infrastructure, the entire cost of this next generation Internet will be passed onto Internet users even as the application service providers make billions in profits from these new pipes. Worse, if the nondiscrimination rule places competing video and voice applications on an equal footing with the ISPs [sic] own offerings, the triple play income stream that has paid for today's Internet infrastructure will become a single revenue stream resulting in much higher charges for Internet access. Finally, if the nondiscrimination rule prevents an ISP from prioritizing time-sensitive traffic such as video and voice over non time-sensitive traffic such as peer-to-peer file sharing, then it could create the type of network congestion that makes the Internet unusable for certain services that consumers depend on.

The succes of ad-supported web application service providers has proven that consumers prefer free or low-cost services subsidized by advertisers over application service providers that charge the full cost of their product to consumers. Consumers may also prefer Internet service providers that provide reduced price Internet service by subsidizing part of the cost of that access with support from application service providers who need guaranteed high speeds to improve their product offerings. Many consumers were pleasantly surprised when Google paid for Internet access at many U.S. airports over the holidays. We see no legitimate reason for the FCC to prohibit such a practice without evidence that these arrangements are anti-competitive or any more unfair than the advantages that application service providers provide to their advertisers.

In conclusion, if drafted or applied incorrectly, the non-discrimination rule could increase the price of broadband for minorities, reduce broadband adoption, result in congested networks, deter investments, and prevent the type of cost sharing that could help close the digital divide.

... The League of United Latin American Citizens urges the FCC to proceed cautiously when considering the nondiscrimination rule. Given the relatively few incidents in the United States where legitimate Internet traffic was blocked or slowed for anti-competitive or censorship reasons, the FCC appears to be pushing a new regulation as a preventative measure for a problem that has yet to warrant such action. In doing so it could unintentionally increase prices for consumers and hinder its efforts to close the digital divide while precluding type of innovative cost sharing strategies that has made the Internet the popular service it is today.

LULAC.jpgBrent Wilkes spoke with The Bilerico Project about the Jan. 14 letter, saying that it was not based in any suggested wording or language guidelines from AT&T, as was the case with GLAAD's Jan. 4 letter.

"The letter that I wrote was written entirely by myself," he said. However, he added, "I don't want to say there was no influence. We spoke with many parties," including net neutrality supporters like Free Press and net neutrality opposers like AT&T.

He also explained that his Jan. 14 letter letter did not wholly denounce network neutrality regulations. He said: "The only part of network neutrality that we disagree with, that we think is wrong, is the idea that a company like AT&T can't have an agreement with another company to provide an enhanced service of some type - speed, or whatever - for a fee."

But this fifth principle is one of the most important aspects of net neutrality, and it's also the one that raised the most debate in late 2009. Without this principle, large, wealthy corporations could conceivably pay Internet service providers to ensure that their content loads extra fast. Smaller, independent - and often minority - companies and publications would subsequently appear to load slower, putting their content at a disadvantage. For example, to use a crude hypothetical - a video from corporate media like CNN or Fox News, which can afford to pay service providers more for faster speeds, could stream at significantly faster speeds than video from independent voices like Democracy Now!.

LULAC receives significant financial backing from AT&T, but despite this, Wilkes said, "AT&T's support of LULAC has not supported LULAC's position of any issues. .... I'm very confident that every time this organization has taken a position on issues, we do so in the interests of our own community."

Wilkes also clarified LULAC's stance on the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, discussing a letter from last week signed by 14 national Hispanic organizations.

"We haven't endorsed the AT&T merger. We signed onto a letter that talks about some of the benefits of the merger," he said, citing AT&T's strong record of diversity policies and their potential influence on T-Mobile's poor diversity policies. "The letter clearly has not endorsed the merger. There are certainly concerns that the merger could raise prices or slow the prices from coming down, so we asked the FCC to examine that, and we're waiting to hear back from the FCC and the process."

The text of the letter does express a favorable perspective on the merger. It reads:

The national organizations communicate our support for what we believe to be potential benefits of the proposed transaction including expanded access to faster, more reliable wireless broadband networks; additional domestic investment; increased diversity in the telecommunications sector and the opportunity for T-Mobile workers to unionize - as well as areas that we would like the FCC to further review.

If LULAC does support the merger, this would in part contradict their support of another net neutrality principle - the one that gives consumers the right to competition between networks, applications, and services.

The NGLCC's Stance

The NGLCC unapologetically opposes net neutrality, and they did so in a series of consistent letters to the FCC, on October 19, 2009, January 5, 2010, and again on April 10, 2010. A June 3, 2009 letter, which could not be located on the FCC's website, is also referenced. They have also opposed net neutrality very publicly on their website.

The Jan. 5 letter, signed by NGLCC co-founders Justin G. Nelson and Chance Mitchell, reads:

Broadband access is critical to NGLCC members - it opens new markets and expands existing ones; it allows access to information and management tools; and it helps members advertise and recruit new employees, among other important uses.

We believe it is critical that the Commission focus on giving all Americans access to an affordable and open Internet, as well as education around how best to use it.

We strongly urge the Commission to focus first and foremost on universal broadband deployment and not on extraneous new rules that will inhibit the very growth you're seeking.

NGLCC.jpgSpeaking with The Bilerico Project, Laura Berry, Director of Communications for NGLCC, said that none of the letters were written by AT&T.

"NGLCC has never supported regulation of the Internet, and we don't really answer to anyone," Berry said. "We don't pay to play. So no, I don't know of any suggested wording or language guides [for the FCC letters], and since I've been here, we've not had any of that. [The decision to file the letters] comes from the staff at the NGLCC and our research into what's best for our members and our constituents."

Berry joined staff of NGLCC in April of this year and was not working at the organization when the letters were filed with the FCC. Nelson and Mitchell were not available for comment.

Berry spoke further about the NGLCC's interest in the AT&T/T-Mobile merger. "We believe that broadband infrastructure is critical to growing small business," she said. "This is the right thing for our members, especially during this delicate economic climate." She said that the NGLCC considers its stance on corporate mergers individually, on a case-by-case basis.

Misguided Concerns

Of the organizations affiliated with AT&T that have filed letters with the FCC opposing net neutrality, the NGLCC is one of the few with a legitimate reason for doing so, as they represent businesses rather than a minority constituency. Opposing regulations on corporations is typical for pro-business entities.

But opposing net neutrality is counterintuitive for NAACP and LULAC in the same way that it was off message for GLAAD to oppose net neutrality - these three organizations represent a minority constituency, and maintaining fair access for their constituents should be top priority. If net neutrality is not upheld, Internet providers could plausibly put independent publications or organizations featuring strong minority voices on the slow track - or block them altogether - while ensuring that corporate-owned entities are always accessible. Smaller sites - like The Bilerico Project or other publications from LGBT media, as well as media from other minority groups - cannot afford to pay high costs to AT&T, so these voices would be effectively limited.

LULAC said it wrote its anti-net neutrality letter in January 2010 independent of AT&T. But even without using any sort of "suggested wording" at all from AT&T, their stance on net neutrality, as well as NAACP's stance on net neutrality, remains confusing. Many of the concerns expressed in their letters to the FCC are misguided and misinformed, like the statement that net neutrality regulations would increase the cost of Internet and slow the proliferation of broadband. There is no reliable data to indicate that net neutrality regulations would affect the proliferation of broadband at all. NAACP and LULAC opposing net neutrality makes little sense, as was the case with GLAAD, so it is essential to question the organizations' relationships with AT&T.

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Catch up on the controversy with additional coverage from The Bilerico Project:

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Thanks, Bil, for this insightful article about the oft-absurd opposition to Net Neutrality. I agree with you it there is no legitimate reason for GLAAD (or the NAACP) to be opposed to it, and this underscores how, because of money, the organization is beholden to a larger corporate agenda that has nothing to do with its goals. GLAAD is building itself a coffin of its diminishing relevancy, and this is just one more nail to seal it.

Sorry, Adam, my above should be addressed to you, not Bil. Realized my error right after I posted.

David Castillo David Castillo | June 13, 2011 8:04 PM

Thanks for this post, Adam. I hope you and Bil continue to keep this issue alive. It's a shame to see so many civil rights groups bow to corporate pressure, but more sunshine on these situations is integral to change. As a queer person of color I watch closely what these groups do, I'll surely be paying close attention to how this issue plays out.

Thanks, for your ongoing reporting on this subject. I won't pretend to understand all the facets involved. I do think that easily made available access to information is extremely important. I have only had access to the internet for about nine years. I missed quite a bit that was going on. As I said, I do not understand all the implications involved in the net neutrality debate. I don't even have a cell phone right now. I don't do file sharing and I am not dependent on broadband.

I worked on David Segal's campaign for the Rhode Island congressional seat last fall. I have a lot of respect for him. He certainly understands the issues that concern me far better than the person who defeated him in the primary. He is an outspoken proponent of net neutrality. Larry Lessig, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation came to speak at one of the Segal fundraisers. I was very impressed by just about everything he had to say. I should probably keep more abreast of what is involved.

I am very surprised you haven't gotten more comments on this subject. I was hoping that someone much better informed than I would add their two cents. Anyway, I thought this post was very informative. I wasn't aware of minority rights organization opposition on this issue.