Civil rights groups that typically march in lockstep have split over new net-neutrality rules, and their discord has escalated into a sharp, at times even personal, feud.
Beyond a split over the merits of the new policy, civil rights groups are accusing each other of selling out the communities they represent in exchange for financial support from wealthy outside donors.
The divide stems from a disagreement over whether new net-neutrality rules ultimately help or hurt minorities and low-income communities. The rules—adopted last month by the Federal Communications Commission and released Thursday—classify broadband providers in the same category as phone service providers, allowing the government to regulate them more strictly.
The civil rights charge against the FCC's plan was marshaled by the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC), which in July wrote a letter warning the FCC not to implement regulations based on Title II of the Communications Act, which is used to regulate phone services. More than 40 civil rights organizations signed the letter.
The letter said the FCC's plan would raise prices on consumers, a pinch that would be felt more sharply among low-income and minority communities. The groups say they fear that the increased regulations would scare broadband providers away from investing in the low-income communities that need infrastructure and access.
"We thought Title II had the potential to sort of bring back "¦ some of the regressive policies that were still applied to Title II that would rewind the clock of progress for the communities we serve," said Nicol Turner-Lee, MMTC's vice president and top researcher.
Not long ago, this stance was largely uncontested within the civil rights movement. In 2010, when the FCC first voted on net neutrality, civil rights groups were almost united against strict regulations, says Michael Scurato, policy director at the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a civil rights group that supports the new Title II rules. "That helped create a toxic and problematic environment for folks advocating for Title II," Scurato said.
But since 2010, Scurato's group and others focused on breaking up the perception of an anti-Title II consensus in the civil rights community. "We've organized to make sure that at the very least, the civil rights and social-justice and racial-justice community is not monolithic on the issue," Scurato said. He wanted to make sure that if "key decision-makers were to step out and advocate for this approach, they wouldn't get hit in the head," he said.
Indeed, a coalition of civil rights organizations emerged that argued strongly for Title II regulations ahead of the FCC's February vote. Those groups say that implementing restrictive regulations is the only way to prevent large Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon, who aren't up against much competition, from underserving poor and minority communities.
"Anything short of Title II allows for discrimination online," said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, an online civil rights group and advocacy organization. "It's a sad day and age when that's what some of our biggest civil rights groups are advocating."
Following the Money?
Some groups say their rivals are bought and paid for by corporations that have long sought to sunder restrictive net-neutrality rules. According to Robinson, groups like MMTC were co-opted by large telecom companies.
"We watched these big corporations be able to move their messages through civil rights organizations," Robinson said. "Sometimes folks who should be on our side are on the wrong side," he added.
MMTC has a history of accepting corporate telecom money. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the nonprofit received hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2011 from such telecom giants as CBS, iHeartMedia (then known as Clear Channel Communications), News Corp., and the National Association of Broadcasters.
At the time, the group was criticized for supporting a 2013 FCC proposal to approve more media mergers. The proposal had previously hit opposition from critics who said it would harm minority communities. The FCC withdrew the proposal later that year.
Turner-Lee says MMTC's funding has no bearing on the organization's positions. "When all those questions came out and people were like, 'Is it true that you had a conference sponsorship?' And we were like, 'Yeah,' " Turner-Lee said. "Does that influence what you say? No."
Of course, there's funding coming in from players on all sides of the debate. According to a report from the conservative Media Research Center, the Ford Foundation and billionaire George Soros' Open Societies Foundations donated almost $200 million to pro-Title II groups like the Center for American Progress, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Media Matters for America between 2000 and 2013.
"A lot of the broadband providers, they do make contributions to various civil rights organizations," said a former senior FCC official who asked not to be named because he now represents telecom companies in front of the commission. "Of course, so do many of the companies that were in favor of net neutrality."
Robinson says his organization, Color of Change, gets the lion's share of its funding from foundations, and some support from members and unions. "We don't take any big corporate money. From either telecom or Silicon Valley companies," Robinson wrote in an email. "We've actually campaigned against both of the corporate sides of this debate."
Now that the FCC has voted for an open-Internet plan that includes Title II regulations, the fight over net neutrality is likely moving to Congress and courtrooms. Turner-Lee says MMTC is advocating for legislators to come up with an alternative to the FCC's decision.
But whether the movement can find a new consensus position, or even reach a more pacific disagreement, remains to be seen, as plenty of bad blood lingers in the wake of the FCC's decision.
The venomous tone of the debate between civil rights groups came through in interviews, during which Robinson lashed out at "folks who parrot telecom groups' talking points" and Turner-Lee shot back at her opponents' "everything-goes organizing strategy."
"It was pretty brutal," Turner-Lee said of the lead-up to the FCC's vote. "But," she added, "we need to figure out how to figure out how to get past this hump and work together."