The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jesse Jackson is lobbying the FCC against aggressive net neutrality rules

The Rev. Jesse Jackson addresses the Civil Rights Summit in Austin, Tex., in April. (EPA/Ashley Landis)

You don't often find a two-time presidential candidate and civil rights leader wading into the sticky business of Internet policy. But last week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson visited an obscure federal office building in southwest Washington to discuss the future of the Internet. Meeting with Tom Wheeler — the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission — Jackson urged the FCC to act on net neutrality, the idea that Internet providers should not be permitted to speed up or slow down certain kinds of Web traffic over others, especially in exchange for money.

What Jackson asked for, though, probably won't sit well with some of net neutrality's most outspoken proponents, including President Obama.

Jackson asked Wheeler to draw up rules for broadband companies that would be far less aggressive than an alternative proposal, recently endorsed by Obama, that would see the FCC regulating Internet providers under the agency's most powerful authority, known as Title II of the Communications Act. Whereas Obama would prefer the FCC to bring its full Title II authority to bear on ISPs such as Time Warner Cable and Verizon, Jackson and some minority groups called Thursday for rules based on a different part of the act known as Section 706. (More on that in a bit.)

Jackson "was unequivocal in voicing his opposition to Title II because of its effects on investment in broadband and because of the ultimate impact on minority communities and job creation," said Berin Szoka, another participant in the meeting with Wheeler who has also argued for Section 706.

Civil rights and diversity organizations are largely united in their support for Section 706, Jackson said in an interview Monday. He added that no matter which legal approach the FCC chooses, the agency's net neutrality rules should not end up marginalizing minorities and the poor.

"We got a lot of poor folks who don't have broadband," said Jackson. "If you create something where, for the poor, the lane is slower and the cost is more, you can't survive."

Jackson raised substantive concerns Thursday about the ability of low-income Americans and minority communities to afford bandwidth-hogging Internet services, according to someone who attended the FCC meeting and had lunch with Jackson beforehand but who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private. Internet plans that exempt some applications from consumers' monthly data caps are one way to make data more affordable, and the tactic has become a popular business strategy in developing countries. But the practice also cuts against the principle of "strong" net neutrality because exempting some services from the cap necessarily means giving them special treatment over others.

"[Jackson] immediately glommed on to this," said the person. "There are some strands of net neutrality … that are in direct conflict with low-income Americans."

Diversity groups have occasionally come under fire for siding with telecom and broadband companies on policy matters. As far back as 2004, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity revealed that cable companies were giving "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in benefits to nonprofits that signed form letters, written by industry officials, supporting the industry's position against unbundling cable programming. Among those signing the letters? The Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the civil rights group founded by Jackson. A spokesman for the organization did not reply Monday to a request for comment. Other reports have implied that diversity organizations continue to lobby on behalf of the industry when it comes to net neutrality. A spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association declined to comment.

Obama and some other advocates have called for "the strongest possible rules" to prevent so-called Internet fast lanes and paid prioritization. These proponents of aggressive regulation have called for the FCC to begin classifying broadband providers under Title II, which they believe gives the commission clear authority to ban that behavior.

Internet providers and other critics of that plan have objected, arguing that less aggressive regulations would work just as well — if not better — because they would be more targeted and likelier to survive a lawsuit. They also argue that Title II will not be effective at banning fast lanes because it allows for prioritization in some circumstances. (The telecom industry has warned it will sue to overturn the FCC's rules if the agency tries to apply Title II.) Since at least late October, the FCC has begun exploring a "hybrid" option that blends elements of Title II and Section 706.

Diversity groups such as the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council advocate for an approach that uses only Section 706, in part over worries that stronger rules would discourage Internet providers from investing in network upgrades in poor communities.  That's a view that's more closely aligned with Internet providers than with consumer groups calling for Title II outright. But, said Jackson, being able to do whatever you want online is preceded by being able to get online in the first place.

"Access and affordability are a big part of our concerns," he said. "There's a belief by some that Section II [sic] has the same powers to protect us from being excluded as Section 706, and there are those that don't believe that. That's the core of the debate."