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.