This year, the debate over Internet regulation has been badly infected by incivility.

Incivility in political and policy discourse is poisonous in a democracy.  It breeds cynicism, discourages civic participation, and blocks bipartisanship and compromise that would benefit all Americans.

In recent months, the media and telecom policy world has been the epicenter of public incivility aimed at mainstream national organizations representing minorities, women, gays and disabled citizens.  These organizations’ only transgression has been taking positions on telecom policy issues that are driven by their mission of advancing digital civil rights.

The major national civil rights organizations have broad expertise in telecom policy.  Their boards and C-suites are populated by distinguished leaders of high integrity.  These groups do their own thinking, and they have a keen sense for what’s in the interest of the minority community.  They operate independently of donors, with whom they often disagree. 

The major national minority organizations have approached the issue of Internet regulation by focusing on their top priorities:  creating jobs, encouraging investment in much-needed infrastructure, and making online access more affordable for low-income, low-wealth consumers.  Those priorities are fundamental to any serious effort to advance digital civil rights, considering that African Americans and Hispanic Americans face a 20:1 wealth gap, a 20 percent income gap, and roughly twice the unemployment rate of white Americans.

Minority groups have the greatest need for access to broadband technology to lift their communities out of poverty.  Achieving digital literacy has been the number one priority of the national civil rights organizations.  Their unique mission and priorities have driven these organizations to support Internet transparency, oppose blocking, and promote online consumer literacy. They defend the interests of the digital have-nots, not the interests of those who are already protected by ordinary market forces.

The bedrock of the Internet is its self-regulatory “shaming culture” - a culture in which thousands of technologically proficient broadband consumers can organize rapidly and stop serious “non-neutral” network behavior without the need for costly, investment-suppressing government intervention. 

Public interest groups make a serious mistake by anointing themselves as better qualified than the nation’s leading civil rights organizations to know what’s in the interests of the minority community.  Unlike most public interest groups, civil rights organizations prioritize the interests of consumers and entrepreneurs who are uniquely disadvantaged due to circumstances such as systemic racial, ethnic or gender discrimination.

Public interest groups must stop reducing themselves to smearing the reputations and attacking the integrity of civil rights groups and their leaders.  Further, public interest and civil rights groups each should be able to seek the support of donors who identify with their interests without being subjected to personal attacks and accusations of impropriety.  It’s certainly reasonable to expect that donors will be comfortable providing support for those with whom they happen to agree.  Civil rights groups have never attacked public interest groups’ funding:  they assume that public interest groups make their own decisions without regard to donors’ interests.  The reverse has not been the case, and that is wrong and hypocritical.

Just a decade ago, civil rights and public interest groups worked together closely.  No one resorted to incivility when they disagreed.  The current atmosphere of uncivil discourse dilutes the impact and effectiveness of organizations that should be focused on their common goals.

It’s time to return to that honorable paradigm of respectful activism, focusing on the merits of issues and affording respect to others’ different missions.  In that way, progressive advocates on opposing sides can find common ground on the highest priority issues facing all Americans as the nation completes its transition to an online society and a digital economy.

Towns, served in the House of Representatives from 1983 to 2013. He was chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2009 to 2011.