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Your Take: Why We Need Net Neutrality

Too many black politicians and front organizations funded by telecommunications companies are working against the interests of African Americans, says the co-founder of ColorOfChange.

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AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have also all given generously to political campaigns. In turn, they have received a great deal of support from those members of Congress they've backed. In addition, they have contributed millions of dollars to civil rights organizations -- with these same organizations signing on to letters that echo the positions of the communications industry.

They've even propped up front groups like the Alliance for Digital Equality, Broadband for America and the Internet Innovation Alliance -- organizations with no constituency or real membership -- to create a chorus of black people and others to make their arguments, with notable figures like former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and former Rep. Harold Ford lending their brands to the cause.

And these companies have pushed a bogus argument that plays on the reality of the digital divide. They've sold the idea that if they have their way and are able to do away with net neutrality, they'll take the additional profits they make and suddenly invest in our communities where they traditionally haven't (despite already seeing profit margins as high as 80 percent). It's a cynical trickle-down argument that defies the basic logic of how businesses operate. Even so, it's become a talking point for several civil rights advocates and groups.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) is in pursuit of the position of ranking member of the House Communications, Technology and the Internet (CTI) subcommittee -- the House committee responsible for shaping legislation regarding the Internet. Rush is regarded as a champion for his constituents and a supporter of progressive policies. But he has also been the leading black voice in opposition to an open Internet, the sole Democrat joining Republicans in crafting a bill that attempted to undermine net neutrality in 2006.

Two of Rush's biggest campaign contributors have been AT&T and Verizon, and Rush has a community technology center bearing his name that was built through a $1 million contribution from AT&T. Rush and his staff have maintained that net neutrality is a "solution in search of a problem."

No one who is familiar with the development of the Internet and the basics of capitalism and who has spent a day researching the issue of net neutrality could ever honestly say that. There are only two explanations I can find: that Rush is being extremely naive or is being compromised by corporate interests. Either one should disqualify someone from serving in such a powerful position.

After I wrote a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, arguing that Rush was a poor choice for the job, Rush attacked me without engaging any of the arguments I put forth. (His main charge was that ColorOfChange was "funded and controlled by Silicon Valley" -- laughable, given that not only do we not receive industry funding, but a few months ago we led a well-publicized protest at Google for its flip-flop on net neutrality.)

But it wasn't just Rush. Consider David Honig, a trusted friend of many in the civil rights community who has done important work in the past but who has recently spent a great deal of his time organizing the civil rights community to line up with the telecoms against net neutrality. He assembled almost every civil rights and black legislative group you can imagine to counter our letter. Did they engage any of the arguments I put forth? Nope -- not one. What they were doing, whether they knew it or not, was helping Honig orchestrate a push-back devoid of any compelling arguments to counter my rationale for opposing Rush.

Black politicians and institutions have historically been a voice of conscience. And they still hold a degree of that currency today. However, it appears that companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are aware of this fact and are exploiting it. At the end of the day, it's up to us. Much of what's being done -- whether by a black member of Congress or one of our institutions -- is being done in our name. And in the case of the undermining of net neutrality, it will be our communities that stand to lose the most.

James Rucker is a co-founder of ColorofChange.org, which advocates a stronger political voice for African Americans.