WASHINGTON » When President Barack Obama laid out his vision for strict regulation of Internet access last month, he was voicing views thought to be held by many at the most liberal end of the Democratic Party.
A few days later, however, the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition sent representatives, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to tell Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, that they thought Obama’s call to regulate broadband Internet service as a utility would harm minority communities by stifling investment in underserved areas and entrenching already dominant Internet companies.
Their displeasure should not be read as a sign that most civil rights organizations were unhappy with Obama’s plan, however. When it comes to the details of Internet regulation, groups that otherwise have much common ground simply don’t see eye to eye.
ColorofChange.org, a black political coalition, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, for example, support treating Internet access as an essential service like electricity or water – as Obama proposed – while the League of United Latin American Citizens opposes it.
"The civil rights community is like every sector anywhere. While from the outside it seems like a monolith, it is not," said Cheryl A. Leanza, a policy adviser for the United Church of Christ Office of Communication. Though she was part of the 11-member group that included Jackson, she asked the chairman to embrace the president’s plan.
The debate is but one slice of a huge campaign to lobby the five FCC commissioners as they weigh net neutrality, the concept that all Internet traffic should be treated equally, and whether to reclassify broadband as a more heavily regulated service.
Since 2002, broadband has been classified as a Title I information service under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, meaning that the FCC lightly regulates it. Title II services include "common carriers" like telephone companies, whose rates the FCC can regulate and whose business plans often require the commission’s approval.
In May, Wheeler made a proposal that would allow companies to pay Internet providers to give them a "fast lane" to consumers. Wheeler is against that practice, known as paid prioritization, and he said his proposal would discourage it. But the regulatory outline released by the FCC would still allow for paid prioritization in some circumstances, a loophole that was seized on by opponents.
Obama urged the FCC to reclassify broadband as a Title II service, which would generally give the commission the authority to prohibit broadband providers from blocking or discriminating against legal online content.
In the four weeks since Obama’s move, more than 100 companies, industry groups and coalitions have met with commissioners and their staffs. At least 67 of those groups have met with Wheeler himself – nearly four a day, on average. Included in those meetings have been civil rights groups with surprisingly divergent views.
The unusual alignments can also be seen in urban governments. The cities of Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco sent representatives to meet with Wheeler’s advisers to say they agreed with tight regulation, but that view was opposed by the National Organization of Blacks in Government.
"I think we’re all on board with the values embedded in what President Obama said, things like accelerating broadband deployment and adoption," said Nicol Turner-Lee, vice president of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council and a member of the group including Jackson that met with the FCC chairman. "The question is, will we be able to solve these issues by going so far with stringent regulation?"
Some of the groups that oppose Title II designation, like the Urban League and the League of United Latin American Citizens, have received contributions from organizations affiliated with Internet service providers, like the Comcast Foundation, the charitable organization endowed by Comcast. Parts of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition’s annual symposium on civil rights were conducted last week at Comcast’s offices in Washington.
But those organizations say that the donations or sponsorships do not influence their positions. "We get support from people on all sides of the issue, including Google and Facebook," said Brent A. Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "We don’t let any of them influence our position."
Several of those favoring Title II, meanwhile, have received funding from organizations affiliated with companies that support stronger regulation. The National Hispanic Media Coalition conducts events that are sponsored in part by companies like Google and Facebook. A trade organization sponsored by those and other Internet companies, the Internet Association, supports a shift to stricter regulation.
Jessica Gonzalez, executive vice president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, said her organization also received support from Comcast for some of its programs. "There is a clear separation between our policy work and who funds us," she said.
One of the primary disagreements among the civil rights groups is over a practice known as "zero rating," in which an Internet service provider makes a deal with a content provider like Facebook or Spotify to allow consumers unlimited access to that service without its counting against a cap on data usage.
Because zero-rating plans are most common among mobile broadband providers, those plans could particularly affect minority communities, Turner-Lee said, which are more likely to depend on mobile systems for Internet access. It is not entirely clear how Obama’s plan would affect zero-rated apps.
"The relevant question is whether there is something to be said about zero-rating plans and the ways that they can be used to further Internet adoption," Turner-Lee said, adding that her group had not yet taken a stance.
But critics say that zero-rating programs are just a form of paid prioritization that could further entrench companies like Facebook that have the financial muscle to pay for the privilege.
According to the Mobile Trends Charging Report by Allot Communications, nearly half of mobile broadband providers worldwide offer at least one zero-rated app, and two-thirds of those offer Facebook as one.
The alignment of civil rights groups both for and against Obama’s recommendation for net-neutrality enforcement is not the only oddity in this debate.
In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC acted within the law when it classified cable broadband as a lightly regulated information service. Writing a stinging dissent to that decision – that is, saying that broadband was obviously more like a utility – was an otherwise frequent nemesis of Democrats: Justice Antonin Scalia.
Edward Wyatt, New York Times