The debate over Open Internet Protections and civil rights is heating up.
In a response to my recent call for the voices of young leaders of color to be heard on the issue of strong open Internet protections, Commissioner Robert Steele, President of the National Association of Black County Officials, harkens back to the "old days", when according to him, young leaders of the past a) worked closely with civil rights veterans, b) demonstrated how their cause would address a clear danger to "minorities", c) got their "facts" right, and d) held government accountable. But many of us live in the legacy of the struggles between Malcolm X and the civil rights veterans of that day. We are clear that the loss of self-representation poses a clear and present danger to communities of color. We know that industry reports may be considered biased by some. And we understand that corporate accountability is as crucial as government accountability, and work hard for both. Young leaders of today are powerful, thoughtful, crucial leaders and the widest users of mobile broadband today. It would be as tragic to squander the potential of young leadership in the fight for an Open Internet, as it would be to squander the potential of the Internet itself.
I agree with Mr. Steele when he suggests that full broadband adoption and open Internet protections are both possible -- if, and only if, the FCC defines broadband as a universal service and ensures the strongest possible protections for an open Internet. Communities of color and the poor cannot thrive with less. It's time for our voices to be heard.
Mr. Steele raised the very relevant concern that "poorly designed network management regulations could lock in place the digital divide". This is absolutely true, and will definitely occur if network management rules do not limit the ability of Big Media companies and Internet Service Providers to manage networks to make a profit. I encourage the FCC and all those who care about the rights of people of color online to take a stand.
Mr. Steele invited me to join the call of some civil rights groups to ask the FCC to rebut the findings of industry economists who suggest that "dis-incentivizing deployment (and thus adoption) and shifting costs from wealthy cost-causers to low and middle income consumers". Though I appreciate the outreach and look forward to fighting a good fight for open Internet protections together- these are in fact not the likely outcomes of strong open Internet protections. It would be interesting to know who funded these "findings" since there is plenty of other theoretical and empirical data that suggests just the opposite; these "findings" recommend a "trickle down" approach that has never ever worked out- especially not for people of color. So, unfortunately, I can't co-sign such an approach.
The truth is, strong open Internet protections encourage investment and deployment, because they prevent ISPs from profiting from artificial scarcity; and nothing about network neutrality will prevent ISPs from charging heavy users more. The only reason additional costs would be dumped on poor and working class consumers is if private companies are given too much rope to hang us with. We can prevent that by ensuring the FCC imposes strong non-discrimination protections in network neutrality rules, thereby limiting corporate control over the Internet. I support -- and I believe Mr. Steele would agree -- stopping corporate bullies, not rewarding them with more control.
That is the mandate of the network neutrality rules championed by FCC Mignon Clyburn- - who is, as Mr. Steele put it, "our greatest hope". Champion of the "have-nots", FCC Commissioner Clyburn has described the Internet as the greatest communications advancement in a generation, and proclaimed a civil rights mandate to not cede the Internet to corporate interests and control. I am among the hundreds of thousands who agree. Anything less than the strongest open Internet protections possible would deepen the digital divide for generations to come. In an information age, when our ability to shape social policy depends on our ability to define and control our representation, strong Internet protections are a must.
FCC Commissioner Clyburn is not alone. President Obama has articulated a firm commitment to preserving an Open Internet through the strongest possible Internet protections. The community organizations of the Media Action Grassroots Network, who work to expand media access and representation for communities of color and the poor, have called on the civil rights community to demand corporate accountability through strong Internet protections. Unity Journalists of Color, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the National Hispanic Media Association all support the strongest possible protections to preserve fair representation for all communities on the Internet, as do thousands of other local, state, and national organizations working in Black, Latino, Asian, Arab and South Asian, and Native American communities. I agree with those who believe the FCC should address the concerns of the civil rights community, and as a part of that community -- I hope the FCC fulfills it's mandate to protect our interests and secure our rights online.
It's clear that the civil rights mandate is to ensure full broadband access and adoption while defending representation online. Many members of the civil rights community agree that the best way to narrow the digital divide is to define broadband as a universal service, and codify the strongest open Internet rules possible that narrowly define reasonable network management and ensure that every voice and idea has a chance by preventing the blocking or prioritizing of content based on profit.
But some in the civil rights community are legitimately concerned that limiting the ability of wealthy corporations to increase their profit through broad and discriminatory management of their networks might have a negative impact on broadband build out and access for communities of color, the poor, and other historically disenfranchised groups. As a result, they are hesitant to support rules that may curtail the flexibility of corporate media giants to block or prioritize content to make money. I understand this concern, and encourage our civil rights leaders to consider strategies and telecommunications positions that would give companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast -who made an 80% profit last year on their Internet video sales alone -- less room to digitally redline communities of color, and support the FCC to hold these companies accountable. In the fight for equal Internet access, it's time for a new strategy. Perhaps veteran civil rights groups can take on the choke-hold influence of corporate investment in communities of color and poor communities that has led to the massive privatization of all public infrastructure -- including our hospitals, our schools, and now, with the recent Supreme Court decision to lift limits on corporate political spending- our government. Mr. Steele raises the question of whether the FCC should be trusted to create policy to close the digital divide. It's a good question. My answer is that it is their mandate to do, and I'd rather the FCC fulfill their mandate than cede the power to AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon- - which some would prefer.
If we are unable to secure the strongest open Internet protections, will the increased profits of media companies be used to lower Internet costs or deploy broadband into rural and poor communities? Having grown up in the context of a massive digital divide despite the extraordinary profits of media companies and ISP's, these companies will go where the money is, as they have done for decades, unless somebody stops them.
I hope Mr. Robert Steele, all those in the civil rights community, and the FCC will stand with and for us -- people of color, the young, the poor and working class, the rural, the migrants, the women- who desperately need and vigorously support the strongest Internet protections available, and champion the rights of communities of color online as we fight for an empowered Internet experience.
As Executive Director for the Center for Media Justice, I have been working for equal media access and fair representation for almost a decade. My father was a leader in the Black Panther Party. Unlike Sarah Palin, the political figure Mr. Steele laughably compared me to, my mother was a founding member of the NY Black Panther Chapter, coordinator of the NY BPP Breakfast Program, a member of SNCC, an educator, and a long-time activist for the rights of the disenfranchised. Before she died, she and I talked often about the news stories about black "crack babies", brown "super-predators" and "criminals", beige "terrorists" -- and she reminded me of the threat posed to social policy when media access is prioritized over representation and consumer rights. Through my mom's memory, and her legacy, the fight for media representation and an empowered media experience for people of color is a fight I hold dear.
The the fight for an open Internet is a fight for our mothers, our children, and our future. Let's not be confused. The fight for an open Internet is an inter-generational fight that requires all members of the civil rights community -- veterans and leaders of a new generation -- to have the foresight and clarity to respond effectively to a new generation of media problems and opportunities. None of us should be willing to cede representation to get access, or accept any less than the strongest Open Internet protections possible.
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