How the Civil Rights Organization's hypocritical stance on Net Neutrality Hurts Activism in Ferguson
The shooting of teenager Mike Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri has mutated from a tragic local killing to a national crisis. The Ferguson police, operating with incompetence worthy of the film Police Academy and the aggression of an occupying army have turned a possible criminal act by a cop into a human rights crisis in America's heartland. Activists and organizations from Al Sharpton and the ACLU to new NAACP president Cornell Brooks descended upon the town to express outrage, call for justice and fight for solutions. While it helps for many of these civil rights organizations to be at ground zero, what would really make a big impact on Ferguson and other cities in racial strife should happen back in Washington DC. If the NAACP and other civil rights organizations really care about justice, accountability and activism, they'll change their bizarre stance on net neutrality. We would never know what was going on in Ferguson without a free and open Internet and for some reason the NAACP is fighting to shut that down.
Let's step back a few weeks. On July 18, Michael Brown was still alive, Darren Wilson was patrolling the streets like a white Eddie Walker, and the most important national story out of the St. Louis metro area was whether Michael Sam could make the Tony Dungy All-Star squad. What escaped the attention of all but a few tech media was that on that day the NAACP, the National Action Network, the Urban League, 100 Black Men, the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, the Council of Korean Americans, Rainbow PUSH and about a dozen other civil rights organizations filed a brief to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) basically begging to end net neutrality.
What does net neutrality have to do with Ferguson, Missouri? Everything. Net neutrality means all content on the Internet has to be treated equally. So your Mom's blog about her Florida vacation loads at the same rate as when you binge watch House of Cards. In January, the U.S. appeals court ruled that big Internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast could charge different rates to different content providers online. Which means now an ISP could charge Netflix or Twitter more to make them run "faster" and content providers who aren't willing to pay may load content slower, or lose the ability entirely. This is not just some doomsday conspiracy theory either. Everyone from Amazon, Ebay, Linked In, Kickstarter, Google and even Twitter have warned the FCC that ending net neutrality will block content, stifle debate, harm citizen journalism and pretty much screw up the Internet.
Which brings us back to Ferguson. Local and national civil rights groups were dependent on hashtag activism and social media to know what was really going on during those first violent nights of protest. While many cable networks covered the unrest like it was the "No Church in the Wild" video, the real story on the ground was reported on Twitter and Vine by Ferguson Alderman Antonio French, Yamiche Alcindor at USA Today, Wesley Lowery at Washington Post, or Ryan Reilly at The Huffington Post. Not to mention organizations that dared to livestream from Ferguson in the face of police harassment. This all happened in realtime, information, fact-checking and oversight provided almost instantaneously by equally supported tweets, vines, posts and livestreams. If net neutrality ends we could see an end to that type of reporting and information. Imagine if AT&T ran Twitter slower than Verizon? Would civil rights groups have known Ferguson police were using tear gas while claiming they were only using smoke bombs? What if Time Warner didn't carry livestreams for nonprofit sites? What if some content was simply blocked by Comcast, do we ever find out what happened to journalists who were harassed by cops? Would America be better served by getting spoon-fed information about riots from a local police department that has lied, defied FOIA requests and isn't even trusted by the Department of Justice? When threats to Internet freedom happened in Turkey, Americans were up in arms. The fact that we're possibly months away from the same fate here should scare the apathy out of everyone in this country who is concerned about when the next three Ferguson's might happen.
This all begs the question, why would the nation's oldest, most influential civil rights organization side with Comcast, CenturyLink and Verizon over the tools of modern activism like Reddit, Tumbler, Facebook, and Twitter? Do they really believe the big telecoms will play fair on the information superhighway? Probably not, but a few million dollars in donations from AT&T has a way of changing even the most dedicated social justice organization. Let's not pretend the NAACP can't be bought. Just ask Donald Sterling. Telecom lobbyists know that the FCC listens to minority rights organizations, so with a few well-publicized donations here and there, Big Telecom knows some civil rights groups will fall all over themselves to destroy the Internet, the great equalizer in the battle for social justice.
There are literally dozens of things that will be coming in the aftermath of the Mike Brown shooting in Ferguson. More civil rights lawsuits than you can count, a new police chief, and serious federal level discussions about the militarization of police. The NAACP will play a large role in those discussions and other organizations will follow their lead. No one can ignore the role the Internet plays in shining a light on the horrific tragedies perpetuated by Ferguson Missouri cops as they goose-step over the U.S. Constitution. Without a free and open Internet this would not happen. If these civil rights organizations truly care about the future of justice in this country, they MUST change their stance on net neutrality. To do otherwise is to admit that corporate dollars mean more than constitutional rights.
Dr. Jason Johnson is a Professor of Political Science at Hiram College, Director of the "Politics Of..." Education Program and a frequent guest on Al Jazeera, MSNBC , CNN and Fox.