Billion-dollar corporations scored a victory on Thursday as the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net neutrality protections. Back in 2015, these rules were put in place to prevent internet service providers, such as Comcast, Spectrum and Verizon, from treating some internet content differently.
Now these companies can legally do just that. But restrictions on internet content could go beyond charging consumers a premium for certain high-bandwidth services, like Netflix. With net neutrality repeal, internet service providers, or ISPs, are free to block or throttle any content they don’t like.
That could include video, text and images distributed by people whose voices are underrepresented in mainstream society, including women and people of color.
If an ISP chooses to charge the largest internet companies, such as Facebook and Google, for faster service, those companies will likely be able to foot the bills. But if ISPs choose to throttle websites maintained by smaller platforms, organizations and individuals, the added cost may hinder their ability to spread a message.
Erin Shields, who works as the Center for Media Justice’s national field organizer for internet rights, told HuffPost that she sees that potential for censorship as a problem.
“It’s not a stretch to believe that, moving forward, we may see some kind of censorship of content that concerns things that corporations might find controversial,” Shields said. She pointed out that even asking a nonprofit to pay for quicker delivery speeds can be detrimental to their cause, as it leaves that organization with fewer resources to, say, support LGBT youth.
However, supporters of the repeal have argued that even though ISPs are allowed to treat content differently, that doesn’t mean they will.
“There are a lot of things in our society we don’t expressly prohibit, but it doesn’t mean that they’re going to happen,” argued Michael Powell, the head of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, in a conference call on Wednesday. “There’s no law that says I can’t paint my house hot pink, but I assure you I have no intention of doing it.”
Several corporations have previously said they would not play favorites with internet content. Consumers, though, have little choice but to take them at their word.
Evan Greer, campaign director for Fight for the Future, a nonprofit that advocates for net neutrality, told HuffPost that ISPs will likely be most interested in blocking or slowing the speed of sites and apps that compete with their own services.
“But without [net neutrality], there’s nothing preventing ISPs from discriminating against entire groups of people or political ideologies,” Greer said.
The issue finds some precedent in a 2007 dispute between the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America and Verizon, which owns HuffPost’s parent company, Oath. Verizon refused to allow NARAL to use its network for a promotional text message program, citing its own right to block “controversial or unsavory” content. A 2007 New York Times report noted that Verizon “appeared to be acting against its own economic interests,” as NARAL would have paid for the access.
(HuffPost’s union is represented by the Writers Guild of America, East, which supports net neutrality and opposed its repeal.)
In her scathing four-page dissent to Thursday’s decision, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn worried about the effect on “marginalized groups” that rely on the internet to communicate “because traditional outlets do not consider their issues or concerns worthy of any coverage.”
“It was through social media that the world first heard about Ferguson, Missouri, because legacy news outlets did not consider it important until the hashtag started trending,” Clyburn wrote, in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement.
She added, “It has been through online video services that targeted entertainment has thrived, where stories are finally being told [after those programs] were repeatedly rejected by mainstream distribution and media outlets. And it has been through secure messaging platforms where activists have communicated and organized for justice without gatekeepers with differing opinions blocking them.”
“It was through social media that the world first heard about Ferguson, Missouri, because legacy news outlets did not consider it important until the hashtag started trending.”
The commissioner’s statement echoed her past comments on the threat of internet censorship, comparing the way people today use the internet to the way civil rights leaders of the 1960s used the telephone.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and NAACP interim president and CEO Derrick Johnson would seem to agree.
Ellison called net neutrality an “issue of racial justice” during a panel discussion last month hosted by the Center for Media Justice. In an opinion piece for The Hill, Johnson said access to entertainment and access to damning information faced the same threat.
“Imagine if you wanted to stream music or television shows over the internet, you had to pay a premium or face frustratingly slow internet speeds. Or if you searched for the video footage that captured the dreadful moments in the brutal killings of unarmed black men only to find that it is blocked from view,” Johnson wrote. “These are two very real possibilities that could manifest if we don’t maintain net neutrality.”
Advocates for an equal internet are now pinning their hopes on Congress, which has the power to overturn the FCC’s decision within 60 days.