Some leading minority advocacy groups long have supported AT&T Inc., Comcast Corp. and other major telecommunications firms in the industry's efforts to win approvals for mergers, get rid of old regulations and avoid new government rules.
And the telecom firms, in turn, have poured millions of dollars of donations and in-kind services, including volunteer help from the carriers' executive suites, into charitable groups in the communities they serve.
Consumer and public advocates used to whisper about the possibility of conflicts of interest, but now they are openly critical as the battle heats up over proposed federal regulations over net neutrality, the principle that Internet service providers should not restrict content, programs and other uses on their networks.
Key minority groups are backing the carriers' efforts to thwart the net neutrality proposals, which would, for instance, prohibit carriers from charging more to give some residential and corporate customers priority in delivering online content.
"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," said Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice.
Cyril and other consumer and public advocates have been buoyed by comments from Federal Communications Commission member Mignon L. Clyburn, a prominent African American and daughter of Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.).
She said in a speech in January that she was surprised that most statements and filings by "some of the leading groups representing people of color have been silent on this make-or-break issue" of net neutrality.
"There has been almost no discussion of how important — how essential — it is for traditionally underrepresented groups to maintain the low barriers to entry that our current open Internet provides," Clyburn said.
However, in a recent interview, she declined to say whether she thought there was a link between minority groups' opposition to the proposals and donations they received from carriers.
Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said that any suggestion that minority groups were mouthpieces for the industry was "offensive."
"It's kind of like saying the minority organizations can't think for themselves," Wilkes said.
Internet providers also rejected any connection between their policies and their donations.
"I can tell you we do not, and have not ever, given money to minority organizations so that they will support our positions on any topic," said Peter Thonis, a spokesman for Verizon Communications Inc. "We talk to many groups about our positions, and some agree with us and some do not."
In the last three years, Verizon has given about $1 million to LULAC for the group's youth literacy program, according to public documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service. And since July 2009, Wilkes has written at least two letters to the FCC echoing the industry's opposition to net neutrality rules.
Wilkes rejected any link between the donations and the letters. He also said broadband providers were being "good corporate citizens" in giving time, money and equipment to charitable groups.
Civic work has long been a hallmark of utilities and other major corporations to help volunteer groups in the communities they serve, as well as on the national level.
For instance, David Cohen, Comcast's executive vice president, joined the board of the National Urban League three years ago as part of a three-year partnership to promote the league's various educational programs. Comcast, now seeking FCC approval to buy a controlling interest in NBC Universal, was recognized that year for being one of several sponsors to donate $5 million or more to the organization.
On the local level, the Greater Sacramento Urban League has Barbara Winn, a Sacramento-area director of external affairs for AT&T, as its chairwoman and Linda Crayton, Comcast's senior director for government affairs in California, as vice chairwoman.
That affiliate's president, David B. DeLuz, wrote to the FCC in January that net neutrality rules "will strongly reduce broadband network investments and ultimately raise prices." DeLuz said in an interview that the two telecom executives on the chapter's board have not influenced its net neutrality stance.
"The Urban League does not engage in pay to play," he said. "Just because [telecoms] write a check to us doesn't mean they write the only check to us."
In public documents and in filings with Congress, carriers have disclosed a steady stream of funding. Comcast told lawmakers in June, for instance, that it gave $1.8 billion in cash and in-kind support over the last nine years to the NAACP, LULAC, the National Urban League and other minority community organizations.
The money funded such projects as after-school programs, technology centers and public service campaigns. For the NAACP's recent 101st anniversary in Kansas City, Mo., AT&T provided live video streaming of the event on the group's website.
"It's hard to imagine [Internet providers] putting out this kind of money if there was nothing coming in return," said James Rucker, executive director of Color of Change, a San Francisco public interest group and outspoken advocate of heightening FCC regulation over Internet providers.
In June, the commission sought public comment on its proposal for making high-speed Internet subject to some of the same nondiscrimination rules applied to phone companies. Commissioners had hoped to vote on the net neutrality proposal in September, but Chairman Julius Genachowski asked for a two-month delay to get additional feedback from the public.
LULAC, local chapters of 100 Black Men, the Minority Media and Telecom Council and other groups opposing net neutrality rules argued in letters to Congress and the FCC that prohibiting Internet providers from charging higher fees for priority in delivering digital content could raise the cost of broadband for consumers in poorer areas.
They said the FCC should pay more attention to ensuring that affordable high-speed Internet is installed in minority communities, where African Americans and Latinos lag behind in getting online connections, and less on the net neutrality debate.
"We think that closing the digital divide should be the top priority and that net neutrality should be second," said David Honig, executive director of the nonprofit Minority Media and Telecom Council in Washington.
But Mignon Clyburn said in the January speech that, for minority groups, "the broadband story does not and cannot end with adoption."
"Broadband is not simply a one-way challenge limited to finding ways in which individuals can obtain meaningful high-speed Internet access," she said. "Broadband's key promise for people of color, in particular, is economic empowerment."
Public-interest groups believe that with net neutrality rules, minority entrepreneurs can expand their Web businesses without having to worry about Internet providers charging them a steep fee for their content to be delivered quickly.