'Old guard' civil rights groups blew it on net neutrality

Net neutrality explained, once & for all
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Net neutrality explained, once & for all 01:46

Story highlights

  • Traditional civil rights groups like NAACP backed ISPs in opposing net neutrality
  • Van Jones: The groups blew it, net neutrality is good for communities of color

Van Jones is president of the Dream Corps/Rebuild The Dream, which promote innovative solutions for America's economy. He was President Barack Obama's green jobs advisor in 2009. A bestselling author, Van is also founder of Green for All, a national organization working to build a green economy. Follow him on Twitter @VanJones68. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)The Federal Communications Commission got it right on "net neutrality."

So did President Obama, who took a bold stand in favor of keeping the Internet free.
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So did leaders such as Reps. John Lewis, Keith Ellison and Maxine Waters, and the Rev. William Barber II, one of the architects of "Moral Mondays" protests and a member of the national board of the NAACP. So did the United Church of Christ, as well as more than 100 social justice and civil rights groups.
    And so did countless progressive, people-powered groups, such as Color of Change, an online community (which I helped to found) dedicated to bringing about positive change for African-Americans. Ditto for tiny, grassroots dynamos like Oakland's Center for Media Justice, led by Malkia Cyril.
    You know who got it dead, dead wrong? As much as it pains me to say it: Far too many of our old-school civil rights organizations.
    Why is net neutrality a partisan issue?
    Why is net neutrality a partisan issue?

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    Why is net neutrality a partisan issue? 00:52
    Since the first days of the Internet, one principle has been in place. Put simply, it is that "owning the pipes" does not give you license to mess with what flows through them.
    Internet service providers (ISPs) can charge a fee to provide Internet access. But they cannot block or censor content they do not like, or charge for a fast lane, or relegate companies that do not pay up to slow Internet speeds that could frustrate customers.
    All the FCC did this week was keep that principle in place.
    They made sure the Internet will work the same way the phones do -- a call to the small business down the street does not sound worse or cost more than one to a big chain store.
    ISPs like Verizon and Comcast stood to make a killing from blocking this change. But what is shocking is that some trusted civil rights organizations -- including the National Urban League, NAACP, and Rainbow Push -- actively helped the ISPs make their case.
    Worst of all, it was a completely avoidable error.
    They should have known that the argument that large ISPs would expand access to under-served communities if they enjoyed higher profit margins was out of line with history and common sense. It was essentially "trickle-down dial-up," and you would not expect civil rights leadership to fall for it.
    They should have been paying attention when the ISPs told investors that a decision in favor of net neutrality would not cause these companies to rethink their broadband investments, while telling the FCC the exact opposite. In most black households -- in most households of any color -- that is called lying.
    And most importantly, they should have realized that African-Americans need Internet freedom to preserve our political voices, and foster a generation of young, black entrepreneurs taking on entrenched businesses.
    As a co-founder of #YesWeCode, an initiative to help train 100,000 young people from low-opportunity communities for careers in coding, I have met amazing young people who have the smarts and the creativity.
    On a level playing field, they can compete with anyone. But if they must pay extortionist fees while the websites of competitors run much faster? If that happens, we all suffer.
    Silicon Valley understood this. Black leaders and Fortune 500 companies and churches and Color of Change understood this.
    But the civil rights groups that persisted in citing telecom talking points? I love them, but they have a little bit of egg on their face today.
    The one hope is that it is not too late. Republicans and ISPs have given no indication that they will stop fighting or cease seeking to relitigate this battle. They will undoubtedly be eager to use civil rights groups as cover.
    In other words, some of the legacy civil rights groups got it wrong. But it is not too late for them to get on the right side of history.