It’s been a wild ride in the wonky world of telecommunications policy. Not long ago, the fight over Web users’ rights and the rules for the expanding world of mobile wireless barely made front page news. Now the always simmering battle has only grown between Beltway civil rights groups and netroots advocates who fall on opposing sides of the debate over AT&T’s proposed $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile. 

At the heart of that debate is a question about how entrenched corporations can and should be in the work of advocates who rally on behalf of low income, communities of color, and other marginalized groups. And it has already prompted the high-profile resignation of the leader ofGLAAD, one of the nation’s largest gay rights groups. 

Jarett Barrios resigned from his tumultuous tenure as the CEO of GLAAD last weekend amid growing external criticism over his support of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger. After a confusing set of circumstances in which Barrios submitted comments to the FCC first opposing and then supporting the merger, he was publicly accused of turning GLAAD into the industry’s "astroturf" movement, presumably in exchange for the company’s financial support. 

Several civil rights groups, including the NAACP and National Urban League, have also supported the merger and have strenuously denied accusations from their netroots critics that they, too, were swayed by AT&T’s philanthropy. 

Barrios has yet to issue a public statement since his resignation. When reached by Colorlines, GLAAD board co-chair Roxanne Jones said only, "We expect at our next board meeting set for Wednesday to reach a conclusion on all issues, so that Mr. Barrios can begin to help the board manage transition and bring on his successor."

Barrios’s resignation came just one day before the official end to the open comment period for and against AT&T’s controversial bid to take over T-Mobile. In total, over 2,000 comments were submitted by unions, civil rights groups, and consumers who all weighed in on how the merger will transform the industry.

An Old Fight–Over Money

The hostility between beltway civil rights groups who support the merger and netroots advocates who oppose it certainly isn’t new, and neither are the allegations of astroturfing.

During last year’s contentious debate over the FCC’s approval of net neutrality rules, the debate seemed to reach a head when Art Brodsky, director of communications at advocacy group Public Knowledge, wrote a blog post criticizing civil rights groups’ opposition to Web rules.

"Perhaps the saddest part of the whole affair to date is the role of groups representing minority populations. For whatever reason–whether they believe what the Big Telecom companies tell them or not–many organizations seem to land on policies that hurt their constituencies and fall into ludicrous traps one suspects are not of their making."

Those groups did not take kindly to Brodksy’s criticism. Sylvia Aguleria of the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership and the NAACP’s Hilary Shelton wrote a joint letter to Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn asking the group to repudiate the comments. Part of that letter read:

To make the blanket assertion that minority groups "fall into ludicrous traps" when taking positions on policy is to claim that minorities, and the groups they form to advocate on their behalf, are incapable of intelligently participating in sophisticated debates. Such statements are irresponsible, prejudiced and lack qualification.

Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush notably joined the fray during his failed bid to become the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communication and Technology. Wired reported that former executive director James Rucker had written a letter to Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi opposing Rush’s candidacy. 

"I have grave doubts that Congressman Rush is capable of being an honest broker on important telecommunications matters," Rucker wrote. "AT&T, America’s oldest and largest telecommunications company, has long been one of the larges donors to Congressman Rush’s campaign committee and leadership PAC." 

Wired later reported that Rush had received over $78,000 over the course of his congressional career from AT&T. Rush responded:

I will not allow the Silicon Valley funded group, which purports to "strengthen Black America’s political voice" through the Internet, to call into question my integrity and honesty to lead the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet as its Ranking Member. The notion that this Silicon Valley controlled group should have the only word on what is in the best interests of people of color is foolish. When an organization rents a Silicon Valley glass house, they ought to be careful about throwing stones.

But the allegations haven’t stopped. Recently, Politico reported that AT&T had lined up support from "a slew of liberal groups with no obvious interest in telecom deals–except that they’ve received big piles of AT&T’s cash." In total, AT&T’s corporate giving branch, the AT&T foundation, gave $62 million in 2009 to charities and non-profit advocacy organizations, including $1 million to the NAACP and $50,000 to GLAAD, according to Politico. That report followed a similar one in the Los Angeles Times last year. 

Both reports fueled the long-held suspicion of some netroots and consumer advocacy groups who have been at odds with telecom companies’ growing power. [’s publisher, the Applied Research Center, is allied with some of those campaigns.]

"When you give national civil rights groups millions of private dollars, there’s no firewall strong enough to keep that money out of their policy," Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, told the Times.

Civil Rights Groups: It’s About Jobs, Not Money

But is following the money enough? That’s the question that ArsTechnica asked last year. And for the civil rights groups who support the merger and receive donations from AT&T, it isn’t.

"I think that it is extremely disrespectful and marginalizing to communities of color that when we take a position on any large business deal, the automatic reaction is that we’ve been bought out," said Lilian Rodríguez López, president of the Hispanic Federation, which submitted a letter in support of the merger with 14 other Latino advocacy groups. "We need to argue the merits of the issue–what works, what doesn’t work–rather than attack groups who make the arguments."

And for the Hispanic Federation, those issues fall largely into two categories: jobs and broadband deployment. Lopez argues that the merger will save jobs and extend AT&T’s worker protections to T-Mobile employees. The overseas* based T-Mobile has long been vehemently anti-union, and the Communications Workers of America have strongly backed the deal as well. Lopez also argues that AT&T has the infrastructure to quickly make good on the promise of broadband expansion to the country’s underserverd rural and communities of color.

The NAACP also insists that its support of the merger has to do with its merits, not AT&T’s donations. "A lot of organizations have provided support to us throughout the years," said Hilary Sheldon, the NAACP’s policy director. Sheldon cited donations from Google, Verizon, Ford, and Wachovia. "We’ve never hesitated when someone is doing something wrong and discriminatory to sue them."

Sheldon cited the NAACP’s 2009 lawsuit against Wachovia, one of its corporate donors, during the financial crisis as proof that it isn’t afraid to take on its funders. "We recognize that we’re the big dog, and we’re a big target," Sheldon said of the criticism surrounding its position.

Job creation is a central talking point for groups who support the merger. Sheldon said that his group was first approached by the Communications Workers of America to support the deal because of AT&T’s commitment to spreading its unionized workforce to T-Mobile employees.

"We asked tough questions about maintaining high levels of union oversight, and their commitment was to expand the protections that are so important to us to employees who are working [at T-Mobile]," Sheldon said. "That is what the NAACP is all about."

CWA, which represents more than 700,000 workers in communications, media and manufacturing, also filed 25 pages of reply comments to the FCC on June 20. In those comments, representatives from the union argued against opponents’ claims that broadband expansion is not a merger-related benefit and wouldn’t help to improve service. Most prominently, CWA argued that the deal would strengthen employee rights and dismissed claims made by its competitors. "Sprint has a long history of hostility to union organizing and trampling workers’ rights."

Testing the Talking Points

In a recent email to its members, wrote that "groups that support the merger use strikingly similar arguments to support their decision–and sometimes have used identical language." ColorofChange is pointing to documents submitted by the National Urban League and the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Both letters are dated May 31 and do indeed use similar language in arguing that the merger will help black workers and Web users. 

The two organizations jointly filed seven pages of reply comments on June 20 in which they argued that the merger would help create jobs and help stop the hemorrhaging of jobs among African Americans. The comments cite the 2010 black unemployment rate–16 percent–along with a 2009 San Jose Mercury News report that African Americans made up less than 2 percent of computer workers in Silicon Valley as evidence that the merger would help workers of color.

Based on our due diligence, we have now reached the definitive view that the merger deserves to be approved. In reaching this conclusion, we recognize that the proceedings have just begun. As thoughtful public policy advocates we are prepared to modify our position should clear and convincing evidence call into doubt the basic assumptions which informed the conclusion we are setting forth in this letter today.

Neither the National Urban League nor the National Action Network responded to requests for comments before this article was published.

In its opposition to the merger, wrote that AT&T should be "applauded for their commitment to diversity in hiring" and acknowledged that the company’s workforce is indeed unionizing. But the group contended that these issues have nothing to do with the merits of the proposed deal. "Mergers almost always lead to layoffs, as the merging companies seek to eliminate redundant jobs–and there’s no reason to expect that this merger will be any different."