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Greedy Telecoms Are Using an African-American Front Group to Fight Net Neutrality

August 25, 2010

(This article by Bruce Dixon is re-posted from Black Agenda Report.)

It’s old news by now that the African American conversation, as heard on corporate media, throughout commercial black radio, is limited to what greedy corporations owning those stations want us to, or will allow us to talk about. When we listen to Warren Ballantine and Steve Harvey giving relationship advice, to Gale King interviewing celebrities, to gay-hating gospel entertainers like Donnie McClurkin, to Rev. Al Sharpton pitching predatory car title loans, or even Tom Joyner on the Morning Show himself, we are not hearing our conversation, or our news about our lives and concerns. We’re hearing the voice of our would-be masters.

Black communities are overwhelmingly against privatizing schools and public resources, and widely oppose the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and everywhere else, more so than any other constituency in the nation. But when was the last time you heard a whisper of this on black TV and radio. In black-oriented media? In the very places we ought to be able to hear our own voices, our collective political will is a political won’t, a corporate and commercial no-go zone.

On August 4, 2010 Tom Joyner had as guest on his nationally syndicated Morning Show one Julius Hollis, an African American former telecom exec who heads up the Alliance For Digital Equality (ADE), a corporate lobbying entity in blackface, widely believed to be funded largely by AT&T. We have included a link to the six minute segment in this article.

In it, Joyner strokes Hollis, first just for being “a good guy,” secondly for his supposed advocacy on extending “access to digital technology by minority communities”, and third for Hollis’s and ADE’s alleged philanthropy. Hollis asserts that he helped start an in-school and after-school program for fifty children in Atlanta which is now “accessible to” more than 2.1 million children. That’s a lot of children. BAR called ADE’s headquarters in Atlanta. We asked where those 2.1 million children were, and exactly what Hollis meant when he said his program was “accessible to” them. Despite repeated telephone inquiries over the course of a week nobody at ADE could tell us that. In fact, they took our calls politely, but never returned any.

We suspect that Hollis’s claim was misleading at least, and fraudulent at worst. If his program actually served 2.1 million children, ADE would be anxious to show the world, rather than hiding from legitimate inquiries. Besides, “accessible to” is a lawyerly weasel-word phrase calculated to sound very much like “our program actually serves 2.1 million children” while allowing whoever made the statement to say they really meant no such thing. Harvard Law School is theoretically “accessible to” everybody as well. Again, BAR gave ADE and Hollis a chance to explain what they mean, a chance they passed up. We won’t call Hollis a liar. But we wish he would explain “accessible to” and show us the 2.1 million children his program serves, if that’s the truth. Maybe Tom Joyner will invite him back to explain it all.

Is ADE really a charitable organization of high-level black and brown “entrepreneurs” all about “giving back” because they’re such good guys and girls? ADE does not disclose its budget, but to sourcewatch.org, the indispensable wiki on corporate front organizations,

Its 2007 tax return (Form 990),” according to SourceWatch, “…had an operating budget of over $2 million, of which no money was allocated for fundraising, nor hiring of employees. In fact, the total compensation for board members exceeded the amount of all program-related expenses.”

Next time Hollis is on the Morning Show, Joyner can also ask about ADE’s supposed advocacy mission, for the expansion of broadband and technological opportunities to black and brown communities. Maybe he’ll point out that ADE is, under federal law, not a charitable outfit, but a 501c4, or lobbying nonprofit, created to advance its tax exempt purposes by influencing public officials. In the real world, Julius Hollis is a telecom lobbyist, and ADE is what’s called an “astroturf” organization, created to carry out the political will of its corporate funders while pretending to be a grassroots operation arising out of black and Latino communities.

ADE is apparently rolling in cash, and has no need of the fundraising appeals typical of do-gooder nonprofits. It has lots of money with which to buy new friends. Earlier this year ADE forked over a load of cash to assume co-sponsorship of Blogging While Brown, an annual gathering of black bloggers.

ADE has two faces. Public policy is made mostly inside the DC Beltway. In this place, safe from most public input or scrutiny, ADE and its corporate sponsors are everywhere, at every official and unofficial event, every congressional meet and greet, every hearing, every panel discussion, with well-paid black and brown ministers and spokespeople. ADE’s message is always the same. ADE, its board members, well-compensated staff and lackeys claim that black and brown communities don’t want publicly owned city or community wi-fi networks to compete with Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and the like. Black and brown people love the idea of Comcast merging with NBC, and bitterly oppose this thing called network neutrality, along with anything else that would “stifle innovation” by regulating the giant telecom monopolies and near-monopolies. The next time you want to see “entrepreneurial innovation” on the part of AT&T, look at your nearly incomprehensible phone bill. This is the face ADE would rather you didn’t see.

ADE’s other face is about corporate philanthropy, because as Joyner would have us believe, they’re “good guys, giving back”, and about its supposed “JET Agenda,” which stands for “jobs, education and technology.” Joyner makes quite a big deal, in the six minute segment, of the few dozen laptop computers ADE enables he and Roland Martin and some others to hand out to deserving minority children at public appearances. What Joyner, Martin and others don’t tell us is that these are the companies which invented, and which still profit from the digital divide.

Pressing for “jobs, education and technology” sounds nice too. Enabling net neutrality over cell phone networks, along with community-owned municipal wireless and cable networks would guarantee an exponentially greater number of jobs and entrepreneurial spaces in our communities. But these are the very things ADE brings black ministers to Washington and to its regional conferences to testify against. Their advocacy of black community access to jobs, education and technology is even less substantial than Hollis’s apparent claim to be the author of an educational program serving 2.1 million children.

ADE never really explains how preserving the rights AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and their peers to dictate our digital future will bring about its “jobs, education and technology,” any more than establishment economists explain how lower taxes on the rich will create trickle-down jobs for the rest of us. So when current AT&T execs like Cynthia Marshall use exactly the same talking points and language to describe AT&T’s “JET Agenda” of “jobs, education and technology” as Julius Hollis does, it’s hard not to believe that AT&T is speaking every time their lips move. Whether it’s posing as an agent of philanthropy, or hurling bogus accusations of racism at Free Press and other advocates of network neutrality, ADE is a black and brown sock puppet for the telecoms. As we wrote several months ago,

…ADE’s policy positions and rhetorical poses, especially its opposition to network neutrality and specious claim to want to bridge the digital divide, fit the exact profile of a telecom-funded PR operation on the part of Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Time-Warner, with black and brown corporate execs on its board. The Alliance For Digital Equality is clearly a corporate-funded front organization pursuing corporate welfare, bailouts and preferential laws and rules for its funders disguised as some kind of benevolent public service. “

ADE is not in the business of public service, any more than Warren Ballentine, Gail King, Rev. Al and Donnie McClurkin are about the black conversation. To station owners and media personalities we are not a people or a polity. We are just a market, to be manipulated and sold to advertisers. Maybe Tom Joyner will invite his good buddy Julius Hollis back to explain himself. Maybe Tom will find a black advocate of network neutrality, community-owned cable and wi-fi, and have that person as a guest on the Morning Show. Maybe. Should we hold our breath?

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