They don’t speak for all minorities on Net Neutrality

by Craig Settles, The Hill

In the net neutrality debate, several leading civil rights organizations have come down heavily against net neutrality, as have some members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Do not assume that they speak for all people of color or for all low-income individuals in urban or rural areas.

I do not belittle or demonize those champions of many noble battles past and yet to come. However, I vigorously disagree with their position on this particular issue, and adamantly reject the assumption that it’s in minority constituents’ best interests for Congress to oppose net neutrality. As a minority business owner who also specializes in broadband strategy, and has spent years assessing the efforts of people working directly with those abandoned across the digital divide, I have a valid perspective.

Organizations that view open Internet requirements as a threat to poor people do not speak for A. Mustafa Al-Aziz, CEO of a WiMAX service provider who grew up in a low-income community. He believes net neutrality is a battle for equality. “If my mom who lives in Battleboro, NC couldn’t get to Skype to make calls that are free or cheap [because Skype competes with telcos’ other services], she wouldn’t be able to afford to make long distance calls.”

These organizations do not speak for Davis Park, former Director of Community Technology Programs for the Little Tokyo Service Center. “If I’m going to pay for 756k speed, that’s what I’ll pay. But I want the same access to whatever content is on the Internet. Suppose local government gives people free online access to healthcare information and services, but only subscribers who pay an extra price to network operators can access it. This is a matter of social injustice. The same is true for access to job opportunities and educational information that’s supposed to be available for everyone.”

Likewise, they do not speak for Genaro Rendon, Director of Southwest Workers Union, which works for community empowerment. He believes net neutrality’s emphasis on equal access to information directly impacts low-income people’s ability to build up their communities. “People not informed are people not participating. The Internet is how you reach decision makers who influence whether Spanish-speaking people are allocated proper resources and representation in government.”

Nor do they speak for the St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco, CA, a nonprofit running technology training programs to help low-income individuals enter, re-enter and/or advance in the workplace. Karl Robillard, Manager of Employment Programs and the Tech Lab, sees a threat down the road if net neutrality principles are not codified. “Right now the Internet is an open exchange of communication. But if it becomes so profit driven by providers that you need money to get to specific content, then you cut out people trying to get a leg up in the world.”

Are poor communities damned if you do, damned if you don’t?

Organizations pressuring Congress with the dubious threat that incumbents won’t invest in minority communities if net neutrality passes do not speak for the urban and rural poor who’ve suffered shabby treatment in a regulation-free environment.

Philadelphia moved to build its own broadband network because of the digital divide. Research in 2004 revealed those with physical access to broadband, meaning if you requested someone would deliver service, correlated directly to income: those in the rich parts of town easily got DSL service, those in low-income communities didn’t. Following Katrina, many poor New Orleans residents lost all communication. The city’s WiFi network was the only system working reliably for weeks. But, in that time of great need, Bell South threatened to sue to keep the city from opening this lifeline to residents even on a temporary basis.

Many rural communities that are repeatedly denied broadband services today will tell you. Low-income communities likely will not be any more desirable for telco investment if net neutrality is defeated, and it’s hard to believe under-served communities can be any less served if net neutrality passes. However, low-income communities that create ways to acquire Internet access, as those around St. Anthony’s did, have a much better chance of closing the digital divide under net neutrality principles.

A telco industry advocate argued in Ebony magazine that the FCC shouldn’t bother with net neutrality because there are more important issues for them to pursue. Nothing is further from the truth! The Internet is about the access to, and use of, resources that are the lifeblood in a global digital economy. Information denied is equal opportunity denied, advancement denied, political participation denied.

Organizations that have lined up against net neutrality are entitled to their opinions. But as with most other communities in America, there are those of us within minority communities who stand firmly on the side of rules that ensure everyone has equal access and equal voice on the Information highway.

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, Co-Director of Communities United for Broadband and author of Fighting the Next Good Fight: Bringing True Broadband to Your Community

article originally published at The Hill.

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