The NAACP and Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership (HTTP) have called on Public Knowledge to repudiate comments on Public Knowledge's blog that they say paint minorities as uninformed or easily manipulated on the issue of network neutrality.
For its part, Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn acknowledges the rhetoric got overheated in the run-up to the FCC vote Thursday to launch a network neutrality rulemaking. She told B&C she wants a more "civil dialogue" on both sides and apologized formally in a letter if anything it said created the impression that the groups were not representing their own views.
In a letter to Sohn Friday, the HTTP and NAACP called the following statement, from an Oct. 18 blog posting, "Big Telecom Foments Hill's Net Neutrality Hysteria," by a Public Knowledge staffer offensive, irresponsible and prejudiced: "Perhaps the saddest part of the whole affair to date is the role of groups representing minority populations. For whatever reason - whether they believe what the Big Telecom companies tell them or not - many organizations seem to land on policies that hurt their constituencies and fall into ludicrous traps one suspects are not of their making."
"Implying that minorities are easily duped and uninformed is astoundingly offensive," wrote the heads of HTTP and the Washington bureau of the NAACP. "But to accuse the nation's most respected and accomplished minority advocacy groups of consciously disregarding the interests of their constituents in order to abet the manipulation of minority officials is beyond insulting."
In an Oct. 14 letter, HTTP and 20 other groups cautioned the FCC that network neutrality regulations might discourage investment, raise prices and potentially widen the digital divide. HTTP Executive Director Sylvia Aguilera called the letter somewhere between caution about and opposition to the FCC's proposal given the range of groups her organization represents. Aguilera said no network incumbents steered them toward their stand. "Absolutely not," she told B&C.
She said the groups were most concerned about applying the regulations to wireless broadband, since that has been a way for both the African American and Latin American communities to get online. "We are opposed to regulations that are going to negatively impact our community," she said. "Groups like Public Knowledge can come up with all the opinions they want and stand above everyone else, which is what it sounds like. But [suggesting that] because we are minority groups we need to be bought off or we need to be told what to say is incredibly offensive. It has nothing to do with the issue of network neutrality and everything to do with having the right to speak for ourselves."
"The rhetoric over the past two weeks has been very hot on both sides" Sohn conceded. "But we look forward with dialoging with groups like the NAACP and HTTP in the future. We recognize things got heated. I am hoping we eventually agree on the substance, but even if we don't, we definitely want to have a more civil dialogue," said Sohn, who was preparing a formal response at press time. "I think we should be taking our cues from Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and looking forward not past," she said.
"[Y]ou have asked me to repudiate any implication that "minority organizations that oppose [our] position don't do their own thinking, don't have genuine concerns, or don't have their constituents' interests at heart" and to "stop such attacks immediately," said Sohn in her letter to the groups. "I unequivocally repudiate any such statements. I want to make clear that I have no doubt that the opinions you express are attributable to your organizations alone, based on your own consideration of what your organizations think best for your constituents. I hope you will accept this apology for anything Public Knowledge may have published that could lend itself to the offensive interpretation you describe in your letter."
At the FCC's meeting Thursday, Clyburn, the commission's lone minority member, took aim at the rhetorical brickbats. "Unfortunately, some parties seem to prefer radioactive rhetoric and unseemly and unbecoming tactics," she said. "Such an approach may yield headlines, but will not yield positive results with me. So let us permit our better selves to emerge during this process."