The NAACP and several other major civil rights groups have emerged as flashpoints in the debate over net neutrality, the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.
More than 40 civil rights groups are supporting broadband providers that oppose strict net neutrality rules. The civil rights groups say they're siding with the Internet giants because it's in the best interest of minority communities.
Yet critics say many of those groups are against stronger net neutrality rules because they've received substantial funding from Internet providers. Many of the civil rights groups currently siding with the broadband giants also supported the controversial Comcast-NBC Universal merger, came out in favor of AT&T's failed takeover of T-Mobile in 2011, and supported broadband providers the last time the Federal Communications Commission ruled on net neutrality back in 2010.
While all the civil rights groups say that net neutrality is a good idea, they disagree on how to enforce it. Some groups, including Color of Change and the Center for Media Justice, want the FCC to have more authority over Internet providers to ensure those providers don't discriminate against certain content. They also say that if net neutrality is weakened and Internet providers are allowed to charge companies to speed up their traffic, it will lead to higher costs being passed on to consumers -- which could have a disproportionate effect on minorities, many of whom already struggle to afford basic broadband connections.
Other groups, including the NAACP and the National Urban League, side with Internet providers and oppose subjecting those companies to greater oversight. They claim strict net neutrality rules would deter broadband companies from expanding service in their communities, preventing more minorities from adopting the Internet.
But some civil rights leaders say the different opinions are more than just an honest policy dispute. Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a media watchdog group, claims that many minority groups side with Internet providers on net neutrality because they fear they will lose funding otherwise.
"If you have programs with any of these companies, you feel beholden to go along with what they believe," said Nogales, whose group supports strict net neutrality rules.
Civil rights groups tend to play an influential role when the government makes policy decisions that affect communities of color, so their stance on net neutrality is significant. The FCC has made it a top priority to ensure that minorities have equal access to the Internet and aren't left behind in the digital age.
Earlier this month, the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, a nonprofit that aims to promote civil rights, filed comments with the FCC on behalf of more than 40 minority groups. The letter sided with Internet providers in opposing strict net neutrality rules that subject those companies to more oversight.
The Minority Media and Telecommunications Council received at least $725,000 in donations and sponsorships between 2009 and 2011 from net neutrality opponents, including Verizon, Time Warner and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.
In an interview, David Honig, the group's president, said the funding it receives from the telecom industry was not essential to its operations and did not influence its position on net neutrality. He said the council receives support from companies on both sides of the debate and that it opposes Internet providers on other policy issues.
Honig told HuffPost he found it "saddening" that because his group received funding from Internet providers, critics are saying "somehow we must have been bought."
Another organization that has sided with Internet providers on net neutrality is the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC. On its website, the group lists Comcast, AT&T and Verizon among the members of its "corporate alliance," an advisory board. In 2006, AT&T gave LULAC $1.5 million to build technology centers in low-income Hispanic communities. In 2008, Verizon gave the group $1 million to improve literacy among Hispanic children.
In an interview, Brent Wilkes, national executive director of LULAC, said that accepting contributions from Internet providers should not prevent minority groups from taking sides on the issue. He also denied that his group's position had been influenced by industry donations.
"We take our stance based on what we believe are the best interests of the Latino community, and we have not been pressured by these companies," Wilkes said.
In 2009, AT&T gave at least $1 million to the NAACP. The NAACP did not return a request for comment from The Huffington Post, but William Barber, president of the group's North Carolina chapter, told Politico in 2011 that the NAACP's endorsement of AT&T's acquisition bid for T-Mobile was unrelated to AT&T's financial contributions to the group.
It's not uncommon for civil rights groups to receive support from companies on both sides of the issue, given that net neutrality affects everyone who uses the Internet and nonprofits often rely on corporate money to support their work in the community.
Nogales, of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, for example, serves on the diversity advisory council for Comcast, which opposes strict net neutrality rules. Nogales' relationship with Comcast has survived despite their opposing views, he said.
But after his group began calling in 2010 for stronger net neutrality rules, Verizon officials stopped returning Nogales' calls and donating money to his organization, he said. Over the course of previous years, Verizon had donated a total of $15,000 to the coalition. Though the contributions were relatively small, Nogales said Verizon's lack of donations since then is evidence of the potential consequences facing civil rights groups that oppose the industry on net neutrality.
"When we took a position on net neutrality, that was the end of the relationship," Nogales said. "If you're on [Verizon's] side of an issue, they're eager to support you. If you're not, they're not going to support you. It's as simple as that."
A Verizon spokesman did not address the company's relationship with Nogales, but said the company "is proud to support the country's most prestigious civil rights groups."
"Many of those groups disagree with us on some issues," Verizon spokesman Ed McFadden said in a statement to HuffPost. "As we do with other organizations we support, we base our support for civil rights groups on the integrity of their mission, the effectiveness of their programs and the quality of their leadership."