Minority conflict over net neutrality goes to root of tech divide


Josh Peterson | Watchdog.org

TECH DIVIDE: A divide within the minority community over net neutrality hits at deeper issues than just corporate funding.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Organizations such as the NAACP and National Urban League, in addition to various Hispanic advocacy groups, are under fire for failing to advocate stricter regulation of Internet service providers, i.e., net neutrality.

Progressive groups, Internet companies and startups are pushing the Federal Communications Commission to regulate ISPs under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.

But to promote net neutrality beyond what was primarily a movement of affluent, left-leaning white men, a 2009 study commissioned by Free Press and the Harmony Institute recommended advocates win over and mobilize liberal middle-class African-Americans and women.

In the five years since the study was first published, the debate has divided civil rights and social justice organizations working to advance minorities’ voices online.

“In recent years, support among people of color for strong net neutrality protections has continued to grow as the issue receives more attention and people realize what’s at stake,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org, told Watchdog.org in a statement, saying an Internet free from ISPs blocking and segregating traffic was important to minority voices.

Color of Change — co-founded by former Barack Obama adviser Van Jones and James Rucker — is an online progressive advocacy group based in Berkley, Calif.

“Some civil rights organizations which receive massive funding from telecom companies used to openly advocate against net neutrality protections. Now, they say they support net neutrality while doing everything they can to undermine it by attacking Title II reclassification, which courts have told the FCC is the only way for it to protect net neutrality,” said Robinson.

The net neutrality debate — a fight over whether ISPs or government regulators should have the final say over managing Internet traffic — has evolved over the decade from a niche issue into a major cause championed by companies such as Netflix, Kickstarter and Google.

A Knight Foundation commissioned-study of the million-plus comments filed with the FCC this summer suggests majority interest in the issue is still skewed toward wealthy men. Race was not measured.

Free Press did not return Watchdog.org’s request for comment.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People maintains no official position on net neutrality, but pro-net neutrality advocates have targeted the 105-year-old organization since at least 2010, claiming its opinions are tainted because it accepted donations from the telecom industry.

The NAACP and the NUL did not return Watchdog.org’s request for comment.

The NAACP states on its website “robust access to broadband Internet” and protection “against censorship of social and political thought” enable people to participate in the democratic process.

“Finally, as we’ve stated in previous filings with the FCC, we must ensure that any rule it considers does not create barriers to entry that prevent people of color, the economically disadvantaged or any Americans from taking advantage of the civic, economic, and creative opportunities enabled by comprehensive broadband internet services,” states the NAACP.

But Robinson — who previously worked as communications director for a coalition that included the NAACP — takes issue with the organization’s policies, funding and tactics.

“Tens of thousands” of Robinson’s members have petitioned the FCC for Title II, he said, calling out members of Congress and organizations opposed to their efforts.

“Meanwhile, the civil rights organizations attacking Title II do not engage their constituents on this issue, preferring to make their case in beltway publications and filings to the FCC,” said Robinson.

Funding sources might suggest what one industry insider told Watchdog.org was a “proxy war” between broadband providers and Internet companies, agitated by the political Left.

Color of Change, for example, has received funding either directly or through the Citizen Engagement Laboratory from progressive organization’s such as the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Tides Foundation, Proteus Fund and the San Francisco Foundation.

Still, money does not necessarily determine an organization’s position, and both sides maintain their stances are in the best interests of their constituents.

The Pew Research Internet Project reported that, as of May 2013, 74 percent of white adults, 64 percent of African-American, non-Hispanic adults and 53 percent of Hispanic adults had a broadband connection at home. A separate Pew study published in August found cell phone and smartphone ownership rates between African-Americans and whites were roughly equal.

“Overall, 72 (percent) of all African-Americans — and 98 (percent) of those between the ages of 18 and 29 — have either a broadband connection or a smartphone,” reported Pew.

As for traffic speeds, a recent FCC study found ISPs now deliver 101 percent of advertised speeds to subscribers.

Despite technology adoption rates, minority involvement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — STEM — education and jobs is lacking, boosting concerns from minority advocates the perspectives of African-Americans, Hispanics and women are not being fully taken into account in the development of new technologies.

Drawing criticism over recruitment and workplace culture, tech companies’ payrolls skews toward white and Asian men, similar to the pro-net neutrality demographic.

Census Bureau data from 2011, for example, found African-Americans accounted for 7 percent of the computer science industry at the time. A majority of black and Latino workers who work in Silicon Valley, according to an August 2014 Time.com report, are guards, cleaners and cooks.

But this doesn’t mean the already competitive industry is prejudiced against women and ethnic minorities. Several tech industry giants — such as Google, Facebook and Apple — have indicated serious interest in increasing gender and ethnic diversity within their ranks.

In fact, it may all boil down to the education system, and not job scarcity.

In a 2011 interview with American Express’ OPEN Forum, for example, Stephan Adams — a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, general partner at Valencia Ventures — attributed the lack of African-American-led startups to the U.S. education system.

“Everyone in Silicon Valley is highly educated. It is the repression of education that has always been the downfall of the African-American community; we are dealing with generations of people who don’t have access to education — they don’t have a community to call upon,” said Adams.

The Grio, a “video-centric news community” devoted to African-American stories, reported in 2013 that Kyla McMullen would graduate from the University of Michigan as the school’s first black female computer science Ph. D. candidate, citing a lack of female minority role models in her field.

The College Board, which administers the Advanced Placement exams, reported that of the 30,000 high school students who took the computer science AP test in 2013, less than 20 percent were female; 3 percent were African-American and 8 percent were Hispanic.

The numbers were lower or even nonexistent in some states.

Barbara Ericson, director of computing outreach and a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech, found that in Mississippi, Montana and Wyoming — states where few AP computer science exams were taken that year — women did not take the exam.

No African-American students took the AP computer science test in 11 states: Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. In Mississippi, only one AP computer science exam was administered; in Montana, only 11; in Wyoming, none.

In Ericson’s explanation to Education Week in January for at least some of her findings, in addition to only 17 states accepting computer science as a core math and science credit, she said AP computer science courses were more “prevalent in suburban and private schools than in urban, poor schools.”

Contact Josh Peterson at jpeterson@watchdog.org. Follow Josh on Twitter at @jdpeterson