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Hypocrisy in the Name of the "Public Interest"

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Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it was calling off discussions with major stakeholders aimed at resolving the ongoing debate over Internet regulation. Some say it was due to the announcement of the Google-Verizon agreement, but either way, this news comes as a disappointment for those of us who were hopeful the talks would result in an agreement on net neutrality policy that would finally allow the focus to return to expanding broadband Internet access to all Americans. I find myself increasingly frustrated by all of the progress that has yet to be made, as I know that with each passing day that we struggle to find a resolution, the cost of digital exclusion grows exponentially for low-income and minority communities here in Chicago and across the country.

While details may remain somewhat unclear about why private discussions have ended, I can't help but think about the direction that the public discussion on this issue has taken. The simple fact is that additional Internet regulations will have a profoundly negative impact on communities of color, whose citizens are among those that would benefit most from access to the Internet. And while legitimate and established minority and civil rights groups have spoken out regarding real concerns facing these communities that stem from the FCC's so-called "third way" approach, I've seen these civil rights concerns characterized inaccurately by high-tech advocacy groups and individuals with elitist agendas that do not represent any "community" but their own.

The Net Neutrality debate is getting so intense that rhetoric and tactics are escalating to an offensive and inappropriate point. While certain supporters of stringent new regulations explore ways to manipulate minority support on the premise that communities of color are being marginalized under the current regulatory system, the real focus should be on contributing to the discussion of how to get more minorities online. In this increasingly digital society, a lack of affordable access to the Internet or effective digital education will put low-income and minority Americans out of the running for critical jobs or educational opportunities. As this happens, the gap between these communities and their digitally affluent counterparts grows, exacerbating the digital divide that we face.

With so much at stake, it is clear that there is no room in this debate for any underhanded tactics. In the months since President Obama announced his key goal of universal broadband access, significant work toward his goal has been underway. However, the regulatory ambiguity created by the largely misguided net neutrality debate has continued to stand in the way of progress toward closing the digital divide. And while we sit and wait for those in Washington to come to a resolution on this issue, it is those on the wrong side of the digital divide who, unfortunately, are penalized.

Delivering affordable Internet access to all Americans will benefit everyone - empowering low-income and minority communities that currently lag behind while making our country stronger from its very core. As such, our focus should be on encouraging the critical private investment and innovation necessary to make this vision a reality, and on creating the high-paying career jobs that are the key to our economic recovery. We all need to recognize that today's Internet was not built on public investment, but rather on the investment of private companies. With an estimated $350 billion needed to build and expand tomorrow's universal Internet, a continued commitment from the private sector will be required. The FCC's "third way" approach would discourage investment in sorely needed broadband infrastructure, stifle innovation and kill job growth that stems from the wide availability of broadband services.

We must not waver in our efforts to deliver affordable Internet access to all Americans. And we must work to put discussions about onerous Internet regulations behind us so that we can continue to move forward. We stand at the edge of real opportunity and greatness - and we can't afford to be sidetracked by issues that distract us from solving the real problems that we face.

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