The Ministerial Alliance Against the Digital Divide revisited

Posted by Mitchell - February 2, 2024 (entry 765)

In early 2005, at a highrise office building in downtown Chicago, a coalition met for the first time under the shared name "Get Illinois Online". The coalition met with the express goal of fighting for municipal-controlled internet in Illinois, and had as its major focus that year's rewrite of the main law in Illinois on telephony and the internet, the Illinois Telecommunications Act.

I was among the attendees at that meeting, as a representative for Chicago Media Action which joined as a coalition partner, and it was there that I first met two representatives from the Ministerial Alliance Against the Digital Divide, or MAADD. On its website, MAADD billed itself as "an organization of Chicago-area ministers devoted to bridging the digital divide between those who have ready access to the Internet and those who do not." A worthy goal to be sure, organized by what seemed to be upstanding people, aligned with communities of color (both of the MAADD representatives I met that day were black).

Get Illinois Online succeeded in its goal in 2005. In the face of strong lobbying by the telecom industry to change the law for a pro-corporate rewrite, the Illinois General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of a two-year-long extension of the Illinois Telecommunications Act. Chicago Media Action would continue to work on municipal internet and local internet issues in the coming years. I never again did meet any representatives from MAADD in person, but MAADD would be on my radar in the years to come.

MAADD claimed a lot of victories that seemed to provide geniune help to people who needed it. In one instance, MAADD opposed SBC, the predecessor to AT&T, regarding an unfair fiber optic deployment scheme. And yet to my disappointment, it also appeared that MAADD had later aligned with the telcos. This was part of a trend we had seen where organizations predominantly of people of color were allying with telcos under the calculation/thinking/hope that if they get on the good side of the telcos, they can help to reduce the digital divide, particularly in communities of color. For example, Rainbow PUSH had come out against net neutrality and had counted AT&T as an organizing sponsor, which made coalition efforts with Rainbow PUSH on other media issues somewhat, um, awkward. And don't forget about Bobby Rush.

Bruce Dixon on the Black Commentator website wrote a withering critique:

"Renting black Republicans is neither a new nor a big deal, so the National Black Chamber of Commerce, which recently fronted for the proposed privatization of Social Security on the grounds that fewer African Americans lived to collect it, is along for the ride too. In their attention to detail the telecom monopolies have even rented the traditional contingent of black preachers, constructed them a web site and bestowed upon them the title of Ministerial Alliance Against the Digital Divide."

The Capitol Fax website was similarly blunt, as it reported in 2007 that MAADD "never answered an e-mail or a phone message....left with it several weeks ago, [and] has been shilling for AT&T’s effort to open up cable competition." The Chicago Reader described MAADD as "a somewhat shadowy group". MAADD was listed as a member organization of an anti-net-neutrality coalition called Hands Off The Internet, funded and dominated by telecoms and their lobbies.

MAADD expanded its putative geographic footprint in lobbying efforts in the following decade. A group that started in Chicago would go on to claim a Connecticut chapter, as evidenced by the testimony of one Dr. Boise Kimber that reads as if it were written by a lobbyist ("almost all our seniors are embracing wireless technology. They are coming to church and reading the Bible on their iPads." Really?!) MAADD was part of efforts in 2013 in Connecticut to pass a pro-corporate legislative rewrite, apparently in connection with ALEC -- the American Legislative Exchange Council that pushes for pro-corporate state laws. The last update I could find of that bill in Connecticut saw it listed as "pending".

The Columbus Dispatch published a letter from MAADD referring to pro-corporate cookie-cutter model legislation in Ohio, where MAADD claimed apparent success in its lobbying efforts in that state. A South Florida Times article from 2011 announced that MAADD also opened a chapter in Florida, with one Rev. Derrick McRae as chapter president. MAADD was able to also get published in Wisconsin and in Rockford, Illinois. A 2011 obituary in the Chicago Tribune of MAADD's founder, Reverend James Demus, said that MAADD had expanded to six states.

Then there's the issue of how many folks were members of MAADD, which changed over time across various public statements and reports but which nonetheless showed clear growth:

Year Stated membership count Source
2005 8000
2011 40000
2023 220000+
? 200000

The numbers could well be valid, considering that membership was "free and easy", according to an archival copy of the MAADD website. All you had to do was complete an online form.

Then again, the membership numbers could be cause for suspicion, considering the financial state of MAADD which is publicly available via its tax filings. Based on these statements, MAADD's expenses exceeded MAADD's reported income. Reported donations came in very large round numbers, which could have been a check from a corporate sponsor (cough AT&T cough).

The last of those tax filings dated to 2015. The MAADD Facebook page hasn't been updated since 2018. The domain is offline. The phone number listed for MAADD returned a disconnected signal when I called it last week. It would appear that MAADD is defunct, even though the website of MAADD's reputed national president, Roosevelt Watkins III, still lists MAADD on his current profile page.

I conclude this article with two questions:

  1. I am assuming that MAADD started out "good" and ended up "bad" -- that is, it was founded as a geniune grassroots response to a real concern only to be bought off or sold off as a mouthpiece or figleaf or front group for the telecoms. Was this indeed the case? Or was it founded as a "bad" group? (If that's so, was the involvement of MAADD in that Get Illinois Online coalition meeting in 2005 as that of a pro-corporate infiltrator?)

  2. There are examples of other groups that functioned as useful smokescreens, to distract from actual aims, to give legitimacy to dubious policies. A classic example is that of NACRE, the National Advisory Council on Radio in Education, which allied itself with commercial radio and which helped diffuse the efforts of a legitimate organization with a similar name and markedly different aims, the National Committee on Education by Radio. If MAADD was supported by telecos to serve as an ally for telcos, as would seem to be the case, why did MAADD seem to disappear? Such a disappearance would imply that their sponsoring corporations have no further need for groups like MAADD, as probably happened with NACRE when its collapse came after commercial radio interests won their policy goals in the mid-1930s. But we remain in volatile times, and it's arguable that telcos haven't yet cemented their policy goals so one would presume that an effort like MAADD would still be useful for corporate aims. This could prove pertinent, for example, in the matter of a federally-supported broadband expansion effort in Illinois which concluded its listening tour this very week.

It is probably too soon to give full answers, which would only come with time, perhaps a lot of time. In the meantime, we fight on to stay true to our principles and to fight on for a better tomorrow.

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