A New Civil Rights Mandate: Champion Open Networks To Close the Digital Divide

Why are Telecom companies asking poor communities and communities of color to choose between fair representation and access to high speed Internet networks? Why can't we have both?
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There's a reason why the more than 100 organizations of the Media Action Grassroots Network are taking action on February 15th, 2010.

As the Federal Communications Commission moves to quickly finalize a National Broadband Plan that many hope will ensure Internet access for all and create opportunity for innovation and economic security, community groups from around the country are hosting delegation visits, direct actions, and community events to ask the same question I am. Namely, why are Telecom companies and their beltway allies asking poor communities and communities of color to choose between fair representation and access to high speed Internet networks? Why can't we have both?

That's the choice big telecom companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon and are trying to force on Internet users from historically un-served or under-served communities like mine. They say without the widest discretion to manage their networks, they can't make the money they need to build out broadband in low-income urban or rural communities. These companies are suggesting that despite their enormous profits, they need more to offer basic service to communities like mine. Offering consumers like me a false choice between a substandard or non-existent digital network is unfair. I want access to the Internet precisely because it gives me unfiltered access to news, information and commerce. I shouldn't have to pay for a network that can restrict and discriminate against my legal content simply because it doesn't make them a profit. That's called digital redlining, and it's unfair to consumers. Big telecom companies are trying to convince legislators and Internet users from poor communities or communities of color that the only way to close the digital divide and manage their networks is for private interests to retain the right to block content and discriminate- not to ensure healthy networks, but to expand profits. That's dead wrong.

There's another way. If the FCC defines broadband as a universal service and protects broadband networks with strong network neutrality rules that prohibit content blocking and discrimination online, people of color and working people across the nation will not be subject to the false choice of representation versus access. Instead, relying on subsidized public and private networks will ensure that historically under-represented consumers may begin to secure the media representation and democratic participation that has long been sought. Telecom companies have repeatedly suggested they should be the main gatekeepers in any broadband build-out, squeezing more and more money out of consumers and small content providers while bringing new consumers onto their restrictive networks. However, transferring capital from Website creators to network owners would only result in padded profits for the owners, not cost savings for consumers. What is lost in that equation is the beauty of the Internet where I, the user, get to define my experience, regardless of who does or does not make a profit.

As a nation we've seen what corporate greed can do. Despite the crisis that emerged in the housing market because of a failure to regulate the banking industry, it seems like the telecommunications industry would have us repeat the same mistake by calling for policymakers to give up age-old protections of an open internet to prevent limits on their profits. In the housing crisis, families lost one of their most basic commodities--- their homes. The takeaway here is that for communities historically at the margins, the internet is as precious a commodity, and presents a prized tool and a gateway to services, opportunity, and broader connection. It must be protected from corporate greed in the ways our homes were not, because what is actually being protected is the right and power to speak in our own voice, a right too few of us have the resources and power to deploy. Where television and print networks failed to provide real access and representation -thanks to corporate mergers and exorbitant start-up costs- digital networks have emerged as the springboard for poor people and people of color to speak in our own voices. Telecommunications companies, with their eyes on fattened profit margins, would have the FCC deprive us that right, yet again, to communities who need it most.

Unfortunately, if the FCC and Congress don't act decisively to protect broadband networks with strong Open Internet rules, the National Broadband Plan may be insufficient to secure the connection, communication, and cultural representation that is the Internet's greatest potential. Let's face it, a broadband plan without open Internet protections is like the constitution without the bill of rights- it's insufficient. At this point the Internet has become a critical part of our daily lives and we all agree that we need a plan for broadband build out and adoption that brings Internet access to even the most un-served community. However, while 63% of adult Americans have a broadband connection at home-- the 37% that don't are overwhelmingly poor, migrants, and from communities of color. Some civil rights groups in the DC beltway have suggested that the FCC and Congress must fix their eye on broadband adoption and de-prioritize the issue of protecting self-representation online with network neutrality rules- but broadband build-out and adoption projects that intend to expand opportunity in these communities must do more than provide access. While it's true that defining broadband as a universal service is a critical step toward economic and political empowerment, broadband networks in un-served and under-served communities that are not supported by civil and consumer protections are substandard and less than we all deserve.

If you take a step back, you can see what these companies are trying to hide. Without strong network neutrality rules, big media companies will be able to continue practices like Comcast's recent move to block file-sharing traffic and Verizon's move to shut down pro-choice text messaging campaigns. Step back even further, and you begin to see that without net neutrality rules a company like Comcast that produced an 80 percent profit margin in 2009, and has now merged with NBC, would receive the benefit of unfettered access, speed and quality, while everyone else is relegated to the slow lane.

If we lose open Internet protections, it would surely impede the innovation that has allowed for people to use the Internet in new and interesting ways, most of which are non-commercial: keeping in touch with friends, finding jobs, and advocating for more just representation from our elected officials. Denying open networks would restrict the Internet users with the most to lose to a tiered digital experience that lacked the Internet's most empowering elements. Hopefully, most of us can see right through this transparent defense of corporate profiteering and champion digital inclusion while fulfilling their mandate to protect the public interest.

The good thing is, the FCC is on the right track. Because telephone service is defined as a "universal service," and not a "commercial service", consumers, lawmakers were able to extend phone service to unserved and under-served communities across the United States. The impact of that move is often taken for granted, but no one can argue that it helped bring our nation into a new era. Now, the FCC is on the verge of calling broadband a universal service and unlocking the federal government's deep resources and rules to subsidize the build out of broadband networks to these constituencies. But, without enshrining the principles of an open Internet in that plan and a clear definition of how telecom companies should manage networks, the FCC runs the risk of allowing a discriminatory Internet system to thrive. Naturally, these telecom companies view such a plan as a threat, and would rather strip those protections from any regulation. Congress and the FCC represent the public, not private interests. That mandate suggests they must not cede the Internet -- what FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called the greatest communications advancement of our generation -- to corporate greed. I applaud Commissioner Clyburn's position, and stand with her.

It's also time for a new generation of civil right leaders to be heard on this issue. We know that digital inclusion and closing the digital divide is only possible with affordable, accessible, and open high speed networks. True representation of people of color and the poor demands that the civil rights community fight for this as vigorously as we fight for equal access in our schools, services, and in the broader society.

The Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) is a local-to-local advocacy network of grassroots social justice, media, and cultural organizations working together for social change through the critical use and transformation of media and communications systems.

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