We must not let big telecom segregate the Internet

by Malkia Cyril, Chris Rabb, Joseph Torres, ColorLines

When Fox News’ Glenn Beck called President Barack Obama a racist this past July, the online advocacy group ColorOfChange.org launched a campaign to convince advertisers to boycott the show. To date, some 280,000 people have joined the effort, and more than 60 companies have pulled their ads.

CNN parted ways with Lou Dobbs last month after civil rights groups and Presente.org mobilized thousands of Latinos online to call on CNN to dump the talk show host for spewing hate against immigrants for years.

None of this — not these advocacy efforts, not countless small business success stories, not even the election of President Barack Obama — would have happened without a free and open Internet. For communities of color, the Internet provides us with a unique opportunity to speak for ourselves without first seeking the approval of gatekeepers or having to secure major funds to do so. But the big telecommunications companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast want to create an effectively segregated online community where they will act as our gatekeepers.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is now considering new rules that could protect the fundamental principle of “Network Neutrality” once and for all. Net Neutrality prohibits Internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking, discriminating against or deterring Internet users from accessing online content and applications of their choice — such as e-newsletters, blogs, social networking sites, online videos, podcasts and smart-phone apps.

It is not that network owners are secretly plotting to stifle free speech - at least not usually. But they have an undeniable, rational interest in creating a pay-for-play model for the treatment of communication on the Internet. Commercial websites that pay will get speed and quality and the non-commercial uses of the Net will be collateral damage - relegated to the slow lane. It’s not necessarily that they want to block our speech for political reasons; it’s that our speech is not important to them because it’s not going to make them money.

The Internet provides our communities with a medium to access services, find jobs, connect to friends, make inexpensive international phone calls to family members, and to advocate for social change. Many of the most valuable things we do online are non-commercial; they exist because the Internet is the first mass media system with no gatekeepers to dole out privilege to the highest bidder. That freedom and openness is what makes the Internet different from broadcasting and cable. It makes it valuable to our communities. We can’t allow Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and other broadband providers to deliver substandard Internet service to our communities.

Telecom Companies Want to Create Second-Class “Netizens”

But the big phone and cable companies want to get rid of Net Neutrality and control how the public accesses the Internet. These companies want to charge websites extra tolls to secure the fastest speeds online, while favoring their own content and services over their competition’s. Those unable to pay will be banished to the slow lane online, becoming second-class “netizens” without the same freedoms given to those with more money and influence.

This threat to Internet freedom isn’t hypothetical. Verizon got caught blocking text messages sent by the pro-choice group NARAL to its own members - though they backed down immediately under public pressure. Comcast has also illegally interfered with file-sharing on its network, a practice that earned them a rebuke from the FCC.

Even though President Obama pledged he would “take a back seat to no one” on Net Neutrality, the big phone and cable companies are pulling out all the stops to derail it, including deploying Karl Rove¬-style scare tactics within our communities and using their massive resources to block Obama’s agenda. In the first nine months of 2009, they employed nearly 500 lobbyists and spent some $74 million to influence Congress and the FCC. Their misinformation has even convinced Glenn Beck that Net Neutrality is an attempt by President Obama to take over the Internet.

Who will protect the online rights of marginalized communities against the raw profit motive of big business? We urge leaders in our community not to yield to the underhanded scare tactics that corporations like AT&T have used on our communities.

We Must Reject a Separate but Unequal Online World

One of those scare tactics is the claim, pushed by phone and cable companies, that Network Neutrality poses a threat to digital inclusion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only does Net Neutrality expand media diversity and access by ensuring fairness and nondiscrimination by big corporations, it will prevent the kind of media consolidation that has happened in the broadcast industry by helping our communities develop a diversity of civic and commercial online enterprises on a scale that represents our growing online numbers.

More choices for broadband service -- not permitting more discrimination -- are the key to bringing down costs. Scrapping Net Neutrality in order to consolidate control over the Internet by cable and phone companies is not the answer. More market control won’t give them more incentive to sell low-cost high-quality services to low-income communities. Our communities will still be subject to the same business logic that has marginalized us in the first place since our households don’t have a lot of money to spend. Shareholders aren’t charities, and we are foolish to expect otherwise.

But more importantly, we should not be sacrificing an open Internet to bribe phone and cable companies not to practice forms of red-lining. The answer to the digital divide cannot be to deliver a second-class, closed Internet to our communities.

The historic fight against discrimination by groups like the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens has led to great societal change, laying the groundwork for the election of a president of color. We urge our colleagues in the civil rights community to fight with us to ensure that telecom and cable companies are not allowed to discriminate against our communities or interfere with our capacity to speak for ourselves without first asking AT&T, Verizon or Comcast for permission.

Several civil rights groups have spoken out in favor of passing Net Neutrality regulations, including the National Hispanic Media Coalition, UNITY: Journalists of Color, and ColorOfChange.org.

We are living through a critical moment in our nation’s history. The FCC is going to decide whether the Internet will remain an open platform that allows for the greatest number of voices to participate in our democratic society, or whether it will be a closed network controlled by the big telecom companies.

We are concerned about the dire consequences of living without Internet freedom. It would create a separate but unequal online world where our communities are unable to use the Internet to compete or to advocate for justice when we have been wronged.

We need civil rights, media justice, community-oriented and grassroots organizations to stand together to make sure effective Net Neutrality regulation will protect our communities from the predatory practices of the phone and cable industries.

As with past civil rights struggles that successfully expanded access, thwarted discrimination, destroyed legalized segregation, and created broad opportunity, so too will the cause for Internet freedom.

Malkia Cyril is the executive director of the Center for Media Justice. Chris Rabb is the founder of the online community Afro-Netizen and is a visiting researcher at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Joseph Torres is the government relations manager of Free Press and former deputy director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

article originally published at ColorLines.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey