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Malkia A. Cyril Headshot

Who Will Defend the Rights of People of Color to an Open Internet? We Speak for Ourselves.

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In every competition, there's a winner and a loser.

The open Internet protections being debated by the Federal Communications Commission right now will determine who wins and who loses in the fight over whether big companies or regular people will control the Internet. I want everyday people to win.

In the fight over who will control the Internet, big companies like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast are hoping they will win a pass on FCC oversight and public interest protection leaving them free to make as much profit as they can even if the service they provide is gated and discriminatory. Some civil rights groups are legitimately concerned that protecting the public from discrimination online -especially the poor and people of color- from the proven abuses of Big Media companies will result in those companies refusing to build out high speed broadband to rural communities and poor urban communities. Media companies have said as much, claiming that public interest and consumer protections that ensure that the Internet remains an open and true source of innovation, otherwise known as "net neutrality", will cost too much and deprive them of revenue for deployment of broadband to the communities that need it most. Threatening to withhold buildout of this critical national utility in poor communities if there are consumer protections attached is called digital redlining, and it's wrong.

It makes sense that the threat of digital redlining has some civil rights groups in the DC beltway concerned. This concern has resulted in some groups like the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC), run by David Honig, taking a position against the open Internet protections that would ensure that the Internet remains an un-gated platform for self-representation, innovation, and opportunity.

What doesn't make sense is that groups like MMTC would deny that the financial relationship between them and the same media companies that are blackmailing the communities MMTC claims to represent, has an impact on their position on open Internet protections. I agree with Garlin Gilchrist II of the Center for Community Change that the undue pressure of big media on some civil rights groups like MMTC to advocate against strong open Internet protections has pushed those organizations dangerously close to unwittingly and unwillingly becoming astroturf groups.

Wikkipedia defines astro-turf as "an English-language term referring to political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but designed to mask its origins to create the impression of being spontaneous, popular "grassroots" behavior. The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass. The goal of such a campaign is to disguise the efforts of a political or commercial entity as an independent public reaction to some political entity--a politician, political group, product, service or event. Astroturfers attempt to orchestrate the actions of apparently diverse and geographically distributed individuals, by both overt ("outreach", "awareness", etc.) and covert (disinformation) means. Astroturfing may be undertaken by an individual pushing a personal agenda or highly organized professional groups with financial backing from large corporations..."

The Internet is the most creative and expansive communications infrastructure of our time. When Joe Torres, my friend and colleague at Free Press, hesitated to call MMTC an Astroturf organization, he was right. But MMTC's support for a corporate line around open Internet protections comes dangerously close to astroturfing. While many legacy civil rights groups have clarified that they are not opposed to net neutrality, MMTC continues to take a position against keeping the Internet open. Since there is no evidence that these rules will do anything but protect communities of color and the poor- I don't understand why a group claiming to represent the interests of people of color like me would focus on us only as consumers of a commercial broadband and not as communities who deserve all the richness an open Internet has to offer.

Openness protections are the Internet's bill of rights. There are no such protections for broadcast or cable and these mediums have become a gated community full of devastating misrepresentation. Openness protections level the playing field on the Internet and ensure that those communities who create and rely on small businesses can use the Internet as a platform for economic mobility and real opportunity. Outside of DC, the civil rights community understands this. The organizations of the Media Action Grassroots Network have met repeatedly with the Federal Communications Commission to share stories from our communities about why a non-discriminatory Internet is a civil right in need of protection. We told Commissioner Mignon Clyburn about the millions of migrant families who use free sites like Skype -which are threatened by removing open Internet protections- to remain connected with their families abroad. We talked with Commissioner Clyburn and our congressional representatives about how the openness we enjoy now on the Internet enables the constituencies we represent to reach a larger audience. This ability to speak in our own voices and control our user experience on the Internet is as important to communities of color and the poor as broadband deployment and adoption, and is one of the most important communications fights of our lifetime.

Commissioner Clyburn has become a champion of Internet openness and has called upon the DC civil rights community to do the same, and some legacy civil rights groups have done so. Unfortunately, MMTC keeps ringing the false alarm that these openness protections will harm our communities. Honig claims to represent the interests of communities of color, and has taken a strong and positive stance on broadband deployment- but in the case of protecting the interests of communities of color online- its time for MMTC to stand with communities of color and the poor, and not with big media.

Over 300 groups outside of the DC beltway support the strongest open Internet protections possible, and have signed a pledge to that effect. These out-of-the beltway civil rights groups have no financial relationship with media companies, and nothing to gain by the position they've taken. Yet the trade newspapers and mainstream media continue to turn to the beltway for the "civil rights perspective" on the Internet. It's time for the official story on the open Internet and civil rights to come from the mouths of those most impacted by it.

As a national civil rights community, we know the FCC must fulfill its mandate to represent the interests of people of color and the poor online. We know that broadband adoption is only act one in the story about Internet access. Act two demands 21st Century democracy- and in this information age that democracy will be navigated online. The un-gated access to education, health care, jobs, and democratic engagement that net neutrality rules provide must be defended, and the civil rights of the poor, migrant communities, and communities of color must be protected online. If MMTC won't stand for the millions of people of color and poor people outside of the DC beltway, who will? Perhaps its simply time for us to speak for ourselves, and demand the strongest open Internet protections possible.

Who speaks for communities of color and the poor about open Internet protections? We speak for ourselves.

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