How The New Civil Rights Advocates Defeated Old-Line Groups On Net Neutrality

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Photo: 18 Million Rising, a civil rights group that represents millendials, commissioned art, like this, linking net neutrality to present-day civil rights issues like Ferguson and the #Handsup protests.

The fight over federal regulation of the Internet should have been an easy victory for the big guys, especially when it came to marshaling the communities of color. Major telecom companies like Verizon and Comcast had the groups like the NAACP, the Multicultural Media and Telecom Council or MMTC and Urban League behind them.

But the issue turned into a battle between David and Goliath when a coalition of smaller, online civil rights organizations took net neutrality to the virtual streets.

By using social media aggressively and persuasively, the online civil rights groups helped convince the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify the Internet as a public utility that would be regulated under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. (Think in terms of basic television, a utility, and cable television, for which consumers pay a premium.)

However, the battle isn’t over.  The losers have started lobbying Congress and folks on both sides expect the issue of Internet regulation will eventually land in court.

Still, the question remains: How did groups like Color of Change, The National Hispanic Media Coalition, and 18 Million Rising overcome the clout of some of the country’s most respected, and oldest, civil rights groups? 18 Million Rising started by listening to their constituents instead of talking to them, said the organization’s new media director Cayden Mak.

The group was originally established to mobilize Asian-American millennials during the 2012 election cycle. From there, it turned to other issues such as immigration. After hearing from network members, the group took a closer look at net neutrality. Mak said many folks were hearing from constituents angered by the MMTC’s advocacy for regulating the Internet.

“Some of the members came to us and said, … we want to see somebody on the other side be outspoken … and talk about why Title II makes more sense for our community, ” Mak said.

MMTC, the National Urban League and its allies upheld (and continue to support) the telecoms’ position that the Internet infrastructure should be less stringently regulated under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. Section 706 would allow for paid prioritization, where Internet service providers could charge to have some content delivered more quickly than other content.

MMTC vice president Nicol Turner-Lee said her group was clearly against paid prioritization – a major sticking point with net neutrality supporters. However, the MMTC and its allies believed less stringent regulation would ultimately allow the telecoms to raise revenue that could pay for building out broadband networks in underserved communities.

“You take disparate adoption among groups of broadband, and what the unintended and intended consequences of heavy-handed regulation could be on these groups…,” Turner-Lee continued. “It became one of those points for us that going to the far continuum of Title II reclassification would be too much.”“Our thought was, one, you have millions who are not online who look like us (black and brown), and two, you have this promise of broadband for solving some of the social concerns of our community,” Turner- Lee said. She mentioned telemedicine as an area where broadband access is crucial.

But that reasoning didn’t sit well with younger members ofother civil rights organizations. Mak said 18 Million Rising heard from several young Asian Americans who felt left out of the mix.

“For the Asian American community, it seems like there is no conversation about net neutrality, specifically from the perspective of what it means to be Asian American and be online,” Mak said.

But this isn’t a disagreement between civil rights groups vested with black and brown communities versus Asian American communities. But it may be one of young versus old.

The backlash arose because the Internet is content for millenials and others immersed in the online world. The online, mostly younger, civil rights activists are experienced in packaging an arcane issue like FCC regulation of the Internet for an audience with a short attention span. For example, 18 Million Rising commissioned art linking net neutrality to present-day civil rights issues like Ferguson and the #Handsup protests.

“One of the things that you struggle with, is how to make this issue look beautiful,” Mak said. “We worked with visual artists who are in our network to produce images that are shared very widely and used by some of our allies.”

Turner-Lee acknowledged that millennials have a different perspective on the Internet because they’re embedded in it.

“Clearly among millennials who are much more engaged in the digital space, there was a progressive turn of events that got people online to get the message out,” Turner-Lee said.

But she also says that net neutrality supporters demonized legacy civil rights organizations and leaders who opposed them.

There were several stories that demonized civil rights groups about where they get their funding,” Turner-Lee charged. “Individuals were called out. There were several stories (questioning) the credibility of pioneering civil rights leaders.”

Michelle Ferrier, associate dean for innovation at Ohio University, doesn’t discount the power of money in influencing positions on Internet regulation. But she thinks the legacy civil rights organizations erred because they merged two different issues: content and access.In fact, several organizations that oppose the FCC’s new Internet rules have received money from companies like Comcast and Verizon. But that money flows both ways. The National Hispanic Media Coalition, which supports net neutrality, counted Comcast and Google among sponsors of its 18th Annual Impact Awards Gala in February. In the past, Comcast has also supported the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which also vigorously advocated for new net neutrality rules.

“I think one of the main concerns (the legacy civil rights groups) have is the digital divide issue and communities of color being left out of that divide,” said Ferrier who supports net neutrality. “Net neutrality involves everyone and every community. And that’s something we need to keep neutral.

“By conflating the two of them,” she added, “the older civil rights organizations made a strategic mistake.”