A little over a week ago I delved into a troubling topic: Why are so many civil rights groups and members of the Congressional Black Caucus opposing net neutrality? It seemed strange to me that leaders in communities of color would be echoing discredited telecommunications industry talking points.
For those not familiar with the term "net neutrality," it describes the rules and practices that currently keep the Internet a free and open communication medium. Net neutrality guarantees that blogs, small businesses, and organizations are on a level playing field with the largest corporations. Whether you're GM or an individual, the content you put online is accessible and delivered in the same way, with the same priority, and nothing is blocked. For communities of color, net neutrality is key. It keeps barriers to Internet entrepreneurship low so that anyone with a good idea and some technical savvy can join the 21st century economy.
Predictably, the major players in the broadband industry have been fighting the FCC's efforts to adopt rules that would solidify net neutrality principles into law, because scrapping net neutrality would enable them to make even more money by creating new revenue streams. Ironically, civil rights leaders and CBC members have joined the dominant players. Their stated reasoning: the belief that net neutrality rules could hurt efforts to close the digital divide. The problem is that, as far as I can see, the argument doesn't hold water. It falls apart whether you approach it from the perspective of business, common sense, or history.
My hope in writing my first post was that it might encourage civil rights leaders who have opposed or questioned net neutrality to publicly explain their positions. Given what's at stake, I think it's incumbent on leaders opposing or questioning net neutrality to publicly make clear why. Unfortunately, none have done so.
While leadership remained silent, my post did elicit some responses, which follow the same pattern--uncritically echoing industry talking points while trying to change the subject from the arguments I put on the table. Take, for example, the open letter posted by Navarrow Wright, a former television and Internet executive and current strategic consultant. I gather from Wright's resume that he is an accomplished and intelligent guy, but his criticism of my piece typifies the shoddy argumentation and confusing of issues from the loudest voices against net neutrality. While Wright failed to engage the arguments I put on the table, in the interest of public debate, I want to take on his assumptions one by one.
... the civil rights groups fought hard to make sure the FCC developed the principles of net neutrality--this is nothing new, we've been living with net neutrality since 2004. Those principles made it possible for you to create Color of Change and for Senator Barack Obama to become President Obama. You should thank the people that helped make it all happen. Instead you question their sincerity.
It's his first attempt to side-step the issues. The question isn't about whether the civil rights organizations in question were at one point instrumental in establishing our current net neutrality principles (a claim which I have yet to find any evidence to back up). The question is why these leaders are opposing the policy now, and it's one they should be able to answer. Over and over during the course of this debate, many of these leaders have acted as though it's disrespectful (or worse) to ask them for evidence to back up their claims about net neutrality. This appears to be a tactic designed to shut down any discussion of the actual issues at hand.
Wright continues by echoing the industry talking point, "We all know the fight today is between Google and the ISPs." While there are several powerful business interests at play, it has no bearing on my concerns or arguments. The broadband industry would love to portray the fight over net neutrality as one between themselves and Google, but my support for net neutrality reflects the views of thousands of independent filmmakers and musicians, community organizers and activists, and Internet entrepreneurs struggling to harness the power of the Internet to launch new products. And while we look at who's talking, I think it's important to look at the relationships in play. My organization hasn't taken a dime from Google or any other corporation with a key interest in either side of the debate. Many of the organizations most vocally opposing net neutrality would have difficulty saying the same.
Don't you think the FCC should answer the questions raised by the civil rights leaders and CBC? Why is it wrong to ask the FCC to make sure the rules they are proposing will not widen the digital divide? Why is it wrong to ask the FCC to make sure the rules they develop will not lead to regressive pricing which would shackle poor people? Why is it wrong to ask that the costs be borne by the people that cause them and not by the underserved? Why are you so afraid of the answers to these questions?
Throughout his piece he asserts that the civil rights groups are only "asking questions" that we "shouldn't be afraid to answer." After reading it a couple of times, I realized where I had seen this technique before: Wright's piece -- and the broader arguments he seeks to defend -- are the rhetorical equivalent of a push poll.
Push polls are a well known and highly effective political trick. They ask questions that insert into the public consciousness a false idea, positioning a baseless assumption as plausible. Navarrow Wright, and the civil rights organizations he is defending, are effectively "push-polling" net neutrality. They are asking the question, "If you knew that net neutrality would widen the digital divide, would you support it?" The question is asked without any evidence to suggest that the premise of the question is true, but the question itself alters the frame of the debate. The effect has been real--FCC commissioners who know the truth about net neutrality are being held hostage by debunked theories, as they don't want to be perceived as embracing policy that could hurt minority communities.
Finally, Wright suggests that the FCC has a bad record on issues of concern to communities of color:
Maybe you don't quite grasp why minority leadership is vexed. Perhaps you're too young to understand why many of our elders, who've given their lives and wear the scars of the struggle, feel the need to seek the truth. You might not understand why they don't trust the FCC to get it right. Understandable mistakes if this is your first foray into media and communications issues...but there is a long history behind their deep skepticism and it makes sense that they would question the FCC on its intended course of action.
Putting aside the personal attack against me, if you follow Wright's reasoning then we should obstruct the ability of the US Congress to make laws even when they're in the interest of our communities, as is the case with net neutrality. For example, in 1964 Congress had a very poor record of protecting the interests of communities of color. Would he have then questioned whether we could trust Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act?
Let me restate what I keep hearing from net neutrality's detractors. The reasoning seems to be that if we give broadband providers the legal authority to discriminate on content, which will allow them to increase their profits, they will suddenly become benevolent and invest in expanding their networks or lower broadband prices. The reasoning is just not borne out by reality. These companies are earning as much as 80 percent profit margins on their broadband services; despite this, they haven't--except when forced--made broadband more affordable for poorer communities in any systematic way that would spur adoption. Worse, it was just reported that major broadband companies are actively attempting to block broadband expansion and adoption plans by smaller players when it presents competition for them.
I'd still like to hear a response from those groups that say they represent the interests of communities of color, but are in line with the broadband providers. If there's a credible argument to be made against network neutrality, I'd like to hear it and engage it. I've put my arguments out there, and I've addressed the opposing arguments. Now I hope other civil rights leaders will join the conversation.