Corporate Buyout: Why Legacy Civil Rights Groups Are on the Wrong Side of History

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

How did it come to this, when the NAACP, Urban League and other legacy civil rights groups are actually propping up Republican leadership in their efforts to tear down President Obama? It's like an alternative universe where stalwarts in the fight to amplify the voices of the powerless are now kowtowing to the corporations that wish to silence us.

To set the context: Soon, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on rules that either preserve or end Net Neutrality. Right now Net Neutrality requires that Internet service providers treat all Web traffic equally. Doing away with it would allow ISPs to censor, block, or slow down content and set tolls for businesses.

This decade-long fight has clear lines of division: on one side are the ISPs who have spent more than $42 million this year alone in an attempt to buy the Internet.

On the other side are nearly 4 million voices composed of individuals, artists, business owners, legal analysts, justice groups and tech experts.

Also on that list is President Obama, who has stated that he wants rules that guarantee corporations do not get to act as online gatekeepers. Surprisingly, this stance puts him at odds with legacy civil rights groups.

As the executive director of, a next generation civil rights organization, it's incredibly risky for me to call out leaders of major legacy groups. These are groups with whom I have worked, and whose work I have personally benefited from. It's a tough position to be in, but there's too much at stake for me to stay silent.

We must safeguard the Internet, a space that has forced the world to pay attention to what is happening in Ferguson, Mo. While the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown exemplifies the national crisis of violent law enforcement practices that target black communities, it still took one million tweets for mainstream media to pick up the story. ColorOfChange -- along with a large coalition that included Missouri State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, St. Louis' Organization for Black Struggle, Credo, MoveOn, Ultraviolet, and many others -- harnessed the power of the Internet, delivering 950,000 signatures to the White House calling on the Department of Justice to fully investigate and prosecute all police officers involved in the fatal shooting.

Like voting rights, what the FCC decides now about the future of Net Neutrality and the open Internet will determine how we are heard in our democracy.

And yet, the National Urban League, the NAACP and Rainbow/PUSH Coalition have been some of the most vocal opponents of Net Neutrality. And let's not forget about the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, who has coordinated many of the participants in the anti-Net Neutrality filings sent to the FCC. Marc Morial, CEO of the National Urban League, recently penned a particularly scathing article, referring to Net Neutrality supporters as "immodest activists... who have also been deafeningly silent regarding civil rights..." As the head of an organization that has been on the frontlines of civil and human rights fights for nearly ten years now, I can say that is certainly not true. But such unfair rhetoric is hardly surprising; if you follow the money, it becomes obvious that on this issue the legacy civil rights groups are severely compromised.

Take a look at NUL's recent "Equal Opportunity Dinner;" its sponsorship list looks like an all-star line up of ISPs, including AT&T, Time Warner and Verizon. In fact, check out the sponsorship pages for a number of these groups and you'll definitely see a pattern. These groups are hired guns, and they're taking aim at your telecommunications rights.

What's been most astonishing is seeing these groups align themselves with the Republican Party in opposition to President Obama. A letter circulated by Sens. Roy Blunt), Marco Rubio and other Republicans cited NAACP talking points when arguing that killing Net Neutrality somehow benefits our communities. Of course, research has found that a corporate-owned Internet would actually hurt small businesses, lead to higher costs for consumers, degrade services, and widen the already growing digital divide. And contrary to the argument that businesses are against Net Neutrality, Ford, UPS, and Visa are among the long list of businesses who have joined the chorus in praise of Internet freedom.

Despite attempts to divide this along party lines, this issue goes beyond Left and Right. An article in Time actually found that 83 percent of conservatives support Net Neutrality. In fact, social media support for Sen. Ted Cruz fell dramatically after he referred to Net Neutrality as "Obamacare for the Internet." From the Tea Party to the Green Party, many of us believe in freedom of expression and want a place where there's a level playing field; millions of us think corporations should not be allowed to create a segregated Internet that benefits the rich and hurts the poor.

Despite this, legacy civil rights groups have remained shockingly tone deaf when it comes to telecommunications rights. Money talks, and in this case justice, equality and self-determination are taking a backseat to corporate sponsorship.

Thankfully, there are nearly 4 million of us -- including the president, and Reps. John Lewis, Barbara Lee, and Keith Ellison -- who have made their voices heard loud and clear to the FCC. ColorofChange proudly stands alongside them all on this crucial civil rights issue.