The Black Stake in the Internet
America's black misleadership class, which is nearly indistinguishable from its black business class, has struck again. In a stunning coup, a mainline African-American voting rights group has been enlisted on the side of AT&T and other telecom monopolies in their legislative push to privatize the internet and roll back hundreds of agreements with local communities that force these monopolies to extend internet and cable service to poor and rural communities around the country.
A time-worn corporate technique for dishonestly manipulating public opinion is to create what are called in the world of public relations, industry-funded organizations and front groups. The indispensable site SourceWatch.org spells it out like this:
"An industry-funded organization receives funding from a company or industry and often acts as a mouthpiece for views that serve the industry's economic interests Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ Industry-funded organizations come in many shapes and sizes Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ trade associations, think tanks, nonprofit advocacy groups and media outlets. Some of these organizations serve as 'third parties' for public relations campaigns. The third party technique has been defined by one PR executive as 'putting your words in someone else's mouth.'"
"A front group Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ purports to represent one agenda while in reality it serves some other party or interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned. The front group is perhaps the most easily recognized use of the third-party technique. For example, the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) claims that its mission is to defend the rights of consumers to choose to eat, drink and smoke as they please. In reality, CCF is a front group for the tobacco, restaurant and alcoholic beverage industries, which provide all or most of its funding Ã¢â‚¬Â¦"For this legislative sales season, the telecommunications monopolies have created a deceptively named corporate mouthpiece called Hands Off the Internet. Its chief public spokesman is former Clinton White House official Mike McCurry. A look at the Hands Off member organizations reveals a list of the usual suspects like the American Conservative Union, the Center for Individual Freedom and the notorious National Association of Manufacturers. As bankrollers and hosts of the party, one expects to see AT&T and Cingular listed, and they are.
Renting black Republicans is neither a new nor a big deal, so the National Black Chamber of Commerce, which recently fronted for the proposed privatization of Social Security on the grounds that fewer African-Americans lived to collect it, is along for the ride too. In their attention to detail, the telecom monopolies have even rented the traditional contingent of black preachers, constructed them a website and bestowed upon them the title of Ministerial Alliance Against the Digital Divide.
We were quite surprised, however, to see one of the mainstays of black voting rights activism listed among the members of the telecom astroturf group: the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. How and why did this happen? What does it mean for NCBCP and for what remains of the civil rights movement?
Why network neutrality is a black issue
On April 27, The Black Commentator published two stories about CBC member Bobby Rush's sponsorship of this year's noxious telco legislation. We explained how the Rush-Barton Act, also called the COPE Act or HR 5252, would kill off public access TV, strip towns and cities of the right to force cable monopolies to serve blacker and poorer areas in return for being able to do business in the wealthier parts of town, and allow companies to charge websites like this one for allowing content or email to reach users.
We called attention to the acceptance of a $1 million donation by a tentacle of AT&T to a not-for-profit organization associated with the congressman. All this earned us a call that morning from a Chicago-based defender of the congressman.
We were making a big mistake, the caller told us, by leading with the issue of network neutrality. Our deeply misguided caller accused us of playing into the hands of white media activists. Network neutrality, she said again and again in the course of an hour-long conversation, was just not "our issue."
But when a black member of Congress accepts a $1 million telco donation for a supposed community-based project in his district and turns up as co-sponsor of telco legislation to redline and disempower black communities nationwide, along with suppressing everybody's freedom of access to the internet, it is indeed a black issue. When AT&T rents black ministers and black Republican sock puppets like the National Black Chamber of Commerce, and even recruits the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation to its team, network neutrality has very definitely become a black issue.
The incongruity of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation finding itself in bed with AT&T, the American Conservative Union and the National Association of Manufacturers is downright striking when you look at who serves on the NCBCP board of directors. To start with, there's Howard Dean, whose campaign for president would have been impossible without a free and open internet. There are luminaries like Joseph Lowery and Ron Walters of the African American Leadership Institute. We counted at least a dozen representatives of labor unions, including an assistant to AFL-CIO president John Sweeny, the UAW and UFCW, AFCSME, SEIU, and both national teachers unions and the A. Philip Randolph Institute.
After an NCBCP staffer assured us on the phone that "Yes, we signed off on that," we phoned and emailed more than a dozen NCBCP board members affiliated with labor unions. Of the six that returned our calls or emails, all claimed to be unaware of the connection between NCBCP and the telco front group. Those few we had actual conversations with before this article was posted expressed horror at the company NCBCP seemed to be keeping, and some said they'd be taking the matter up with NCBCP executive director Melanie Campbell.
Our assumption is that some NCBCP staff and board members committed this act of treachery against the interests of African-Americans in return for a sizable donation with which to continue some of its actual good and commendable work. As disturbing as this is, it may not be the first piece of dirty money NCBCP has solicited or accepted.
NCBCP prominently displayed a Wal-Mart banner at a summer event on voting rights it held in Washington D.C., prompting questions at that time from some people close to the organization. BC cannot say with any certainty what Wal-Mart is getting for its money from NCBCP, but the basic motives of Wal-Mart, and the mission of anyplace with a name like "National Coalition on Black Civic Participation" seem fundamentally and irreconcilably at odds. We hope that NCBCP's board members will find the time to untangle these questions soon.
"This is something they did without my knowledge, probably without the knowledge of most of us," a union member of the organization's board told us. "If we knew about this, or about an NCBCP affiliation with Wal-Mart or the National Association of Manufacturers, I'm sure we'd have had a lot to say about it."
In the three decades of NCBCP's existence, labor unions have consistently been among its principal contributors. That support threatened to falter in recent times, partly due to changes in campaign finance laws that favored other types of organizations, and partly as a result of cuts in those kind of expenditures by some unions and by the AFLCIO.
Members of what we call the "black business leadership" class consulted their speed-dial lists, opened up their rolodexes and delivered the National Coalition and its hard-won credibility into the hands of AT&T, Wal-Mart and who knows who else? Whatever else you can say about this bunch, they know an opportunity to pick up an undervalued property when they see it.
In a Black Commentator cover story last October titled "Where the Left Lives," we cited a recent study by the Bay Area Center for Voting Research of 250 American cities ranking them in order from most to least conservative and most to least "liberal." The conclusions were not the least bit surprising to us:
"The nation's remaining liberals are overwhelming African-Americans. The BACVR study that ranks the political ideology of every major city in the country shows that cities with large black populations dominate the list of liberal communities. The research finds that Detroit is the most liberal city in the United States and has one of the highest concentrations of African-American residents of any major city. Over 81 percent of the population in Detroit is African-American, compared to the national average of 12.3 percent. In fact, the average percentage of African American residents in the 25 most liberal cities in the country is 40.3 percent, more than three times the national rate.
"The list of America's most liberal cities reads like a who's who of prominent African-American communities. Gary, Ind.; Washington, D.C.; Newark, N.J.; Flint, Mich.; Cleveland; Baltimore; Philadelphia; and Birmingham, Ala., have long had prominent black populations. While most black voters have consistently supported Democrats since the 1960s, it is the white liberals that have slowly withered away over the decades, leaving African-Americans as the sole standard bearers for the left Ã¢â‚¬Â¦The message seems clear enough. If labor values its only stable base constituency, and its own future, it must invest more heavily in the grass-roots organizations that work in and for black America. Otherwise some of those grassroots organizing efforts will die, some will be stillborn, and too many others will be subverted by corporate dollars.
Network neutrality and competition
Finally, if network neutrality becomes a black issue when telcos can buy, sell and rent black organizations, when a black congressman accepts a million-dollar telco donation and sponsors legislation that allows the industry to redline and disinvest in our communities, that's a black issue too.
Bobby Rush, in his statement answering the Chicago Sun-Times offers the transparent legalistic defense to conflict-of-interest charges -- that since the donation was from a single company and the legislation benefits several telcos, no conflict exists. What else can you expect from a legislative body that elects its speaker, its majority and minority leaders not on the basis of who has the most compelling vision for the nation and its people, but who can raise the largest number of corporate dollars? To anyone not mired in the culture of corrupt public officialdom, Rush's position reeks of a conflict of interest, whether it meets the legal definition or not.
The congressman, his donors and their front organization, Hands Off the Internet, claim that handing over the internet to private corporations and eliminating network neutrality will lower the cost and improve the quality of internet service for everybody. This is nothing short of an outright lie.
According to Stanford University's Lawrence Lessig in a recent interview with Robert McChesney, broadband internet access in France, Japan and South Korea and several other countries is cheaper, faster and more widely available than in the United States. In every case, they do this by making the provision of service to everyone in law and public policy, not leaving it up to "the market" or the whims of private corporations.
The whole "free competition" and "leaving it up to the market" argument flies in the face of how AT&T and other telco and cable monopolies came into existence and how they actually conduct their business. As the Univeristy of Illinois' Robert McChesney explained recently on Democracy Now:
"Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ the phone companies and the cable companies, which provide internet access to 98 percent of Americans and almost all businesses, are viewing -- you know, they are companies that were set up by the government. They're not free-market companies. Their entire business model has been based on getting monopoly license franchises from the government for phone and cable service. and then using it to make a lot of money. And they're using their political leverage now to try to write a law basically which lets them control the interne tÃ¢â‚¬Â¦"
"Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ what they want to do desperately is be in a situation where they can rank order websites. And websites that come through the fastest to us, to the users of the internet, (will be) Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ the ones that pay them money or the ones they own. And websites that don't pay them come through slower, much harder to get, or in some cases, they'll have the power to take them off the internet altogether."
"Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ there's no technological justification for this. There's no economic justification. It's pure corrupt crony capitalism. They're basically using their political leverage to change this so they get a huge new revenue stream, and it gives them an inordinate amount of power over the internet."In the interview, McChesney also discusses the impact of cable and internet service to minority communities, and how this will be affected by Rep. Rush's legislation.
"Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ one of the core fundamental aspects of telecommunications policies historically Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ was the requirement that the phone companies, if they were going to get these monopoly licenses to make a pile of money, they had to serve the entire community. They couldn't discriminate against neighborhoods, against cities. They had to give universal access Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ they hate that. They basically want to serve just wealthy and middle-class communities, and skip poor and rural communities. And they're trying to write it into the law that they can basically Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ redline, that they can be discriminatory about which communities they offer their best services to and only offer in the most lucrative communities."Rep. Rush concludes his defense by observing that "the real conflict here is America's unwillingness to invest much-needed capital in (oppressed) communities like Englewood." His legislation though, allows telcos to deny our communities investment in their own communications infrastructure. Cheap, ubiquitous and comprehensive broadband access is as necessary to the economic well-being of our community as good streets.
They say that the other superpower in the world today is public opinion, and that the only force stronger than organized money is organized people. Given the wave of public revulsion at this naked grab for power and profit on the part of the telecom industry, it's not at all too late for Bobby Rush to find a way to withdraw his sponsorship. And it's not too late for NCBCP to remove itself from the telecom front organization and to undertake a general reconsideration, in light of its historic mission, of who it takes money from and why.