National Urban League President Marc Morial speaks at the Let Freedom Ring ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in August, 2013, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Carolyn Kaster/AP
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Last October, Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, wrote a column outlining his stand on the issue of “network neutrality” that aggravated activists but made providers of Internet services cheer.

Morial’s column in The Hill newspaper reflected a position on the issue — which is about whether all content sent over the Internet be treated equally — that was very much the same as that of David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast Corp., the nation’s largest Internet service provider.

It’s not unusual that Comcast would make that argument, but it seemed a little odd that the Urban League — known for defending civil rights and fighting for economic equality for blacks — would take a position in a debate over such a seemingly arcane issue.

Critics say Morial’s decision to speak out had more to do with money and relationships than with Internet policy.

It turns out that Cohen has sat on the Urban League’s board of trustees since 2008. In addition, the Comcast Foundation, headed by Cohen, gave the National Urban League and some of its more than 100 affiliates almost $2 million from 2012 to 2013, according to an analysis of IRS tax filings by the Center for Public Integrity.

Cohen’s not the only representative of an Internet company to sit on the Urban League’s board.

Among its 33 trustees is Donna Epps, who manages Verizon Communications Inc.’s domestic public policy efforts. Epps formerly worked in the company’s federal regulatory group, which tracks government rules such as those that affect net neutrality. Verizon sued the Federal Communications Commission over its initial network neutrality rules issued in 2010 and won. Representing AT&T Inc. on NUL’s board is Charlene Lake, senior vice president of public affairs and chief sustainability officer.

The Verizon Foundation in 2012 and 2013 gave the Urban League nearly $590,000. AT&T’s foundation, however, gave nothing to the Urban League or any of its affiliates in 2012. AT&T didn’t provide a copy of its 2013 tax filing by deadline.

The Urban League says Cohen’s position and the donations from the foundation have had no bearing on its position on the network neutrality issue.

“While our partnerships absolutely support the work we do, the positions of the National Urban League on any issue are — and have always been — our own and uninfluenced by any corporate, foundation, government or individual supporter,” said the Urban League in an emailed statement to the Center.

Comcast, when asked about the financial assistance, was indignant. To suggest that the company’s more than 50-year commitment to the Urban League is in any way tied to governmental decisions is “offensive and also insulting to the hard work these organizations do in the community,” James Dunning, executive director of communications, said in an email.

Verizon said in an email that the company “sponsors and supports the National Urban League and its activities because we support the NUL’s core mission of promoting inclusion and diversity.”

Neither company answered questions about whether net neutrality was discussed at NUL board meetings or with senior executives.

Policies such as net neutrality “are certainly discussed at board meetings” and is why corporations such as Comcast and Verizon send regulatory experts to sit on boards such as NUL, said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, which works on political and economic issues for blacks and supports stronger regulations of Internet providers. “That’s what they do,” he said.

A month prior to the publication of Morial’s article, Cohen wrote a blog about the network neutrality issue arguing against a strict regulatory approach that the FCC is considering in which the Internet would be categorized as a utility. Service providers contend that the approach would keep providers from investing in faster networks and impede innovation.

Under this regime, providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon would be considered common carriers — like old-style phone companies — required to deliver all content at the same speeds and prohibited from charging Internet companies for faster delivery. President Barack Obama said the FCC, which is expected to unveil its proposed Internet rules early next year, should adopt this approach.

Cohen — and Morial — argued for a lighter touch. They called for rules that prohibit an Internet provider from intentionally blocking, degrading or slowing traffic from a website or content provider, but allow for providers to arrange for so-called paid prioritization, deals that would speed content more quickly to users, that weren’t judged by the FCC to be anti-competitive.

Other minority groups are in favor of the stronger regulatory approach and are skeptical of the Urban League as well as some other organizations representing minorities.

“If you follow the money, it becomes obvious that on this issue, the legacy civil rights groups are severely compromised,” Robinson wrote in an opinion piece for the Huffington Post in November.

If the FCC approves the lighter regulatory approach, Robinson says Internet providers will be allowed to manage the flow of traffic and provide faster content delivery for those who pay for it, impeding other services that minorities rely on to organize. For example, when Michael Brown was killed by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, Robinson said it was the minority community there using social media and other Internet platforms that created an alternate narrative that led to investigations.

“If the information on the Internet is not in the business interests of the Internet provider or for the companies that they have a business relationship with, they will have the incentive and the ability to discriminate, and the minority communities will be the ones that are hurt,” Robinson told the Center.

Jessica Gonzalez, general counsel for the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which works to improve how Latinos are portrayed in media and supports the stricter regulations , said the grants from firms like Verizon are frequently tied to an understanding of support for certain policies.

“What seems like what is happening is clearly happening,” Gonzalez said. “These organizations have lined up with the telecommunications companies and carry their water.”

The National Hispanic Media Coalition receives money from Comcast, but Gonzalez said the group makes it clear that their policy positions will frequently be in opposition to their donors’. When NHMC came out in support of net neutrality in 2009, Verizon pulled all donations to the group and has not funded any NHMC programs since, Gonzalez said.

“We’ve always been clear: They will not buy policy positions from us,” Gonzalez said.

Still, net neutrality has minority groups split. Besides the National Urban League, the NAACP and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition support the lighter regulation because, they say, classifying the Internet as a utility would reduce broadband investment in underserved areas, which would disproportionately affect minorities, according to a New York Times article.

Morial argued in his article that fewer rules for Internet providers have led to more rural residents having broadband connections in the U.S. compared with Europe, where Internet regulations are stiffer, and has “created 945,000 jobs for workers of color in the broadband sector.”

Comcast chooses the organizations it funds based on whether they offer services in one of three areas: digital literacy, volunteerism and youth leadership development, according to the company. Many of the grants that were awarded to the Urban League and a portion of its more than 100 affiliates went to pay for computer literacy and leadership programs, as well as general operating support and the company’s National Achievers Society.

But those are the kinds of donations that eventually lead a nonprofit to consider policies that may not be in the best interest of the population they serve, Robinson said.

“A million dollars may not sound like a lot, but it’s the things that come along with it that matter more, like having access to top executives in a corporation that change the way an organization thinks of an issue,” Robinson said. “The money just tells a piece of the story.”

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John Dunbar worked for 15 years at the Center for Public Integrity, serving as its CEO from 2016 to 2018.