On February 17th, all across the country, community leaders and low-income wireless users will make calls asking Congress to vote yes on Internet Freedom and squash the Repeal Act. The Repeal Act is a bill pursuant to the Congressional Review Act which allows Congress to overturn regulations passed by federal agencies. Opponents of Internet Freedom seek to use the hearing the day before to pressure Congress to overturn the FCC's recently passed net neutrality regulations, and prevent them from taking up the issue in the future. Why is the Repeal Act bad for consumers, innovation, and democracy? Because 2 million people weighed in to say they wanted to be protected by net neutrality rules, the agency charged with governing the Internet voted to pass those rules, and now Congress- urged by incoming GOP chairs of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Lee Terry (R-Neb.), together with Rep. Upton- is trying to bypass all of that to try and eliminate them.
This call to action comes from Public Knowledge, a public interest organization in DC focused on protecting the rights of media makers and consumers. Public Knowledge is joined by the Media Action Grassroots Network, a Center for Media Justice network of community organizations dedicated to changing media conditions to eliminate racism and poverty. Despite the weaknesses of the net neutrality rules passed by the FCC which fail to protect wireless users and allow significant corporate loopholes for Internet companies, these rules provide the only rules of the road and are the only Internet protections for consumers in existence. Internet Freedom advocates want Congress to protect Internet users from corporate abuses by maintaining or expanding these very basic rules of the road. Internet Freedom opponents think it's Internet companies that need to be protected from government regulation, and are speaking on behalf of the poorest Internet users to do it.
Internet Freedom is a term coined by advocates of network neutrality- the Internet's Bill of Rights. Internet Freedom means that no company should be able to block or discriminate against any content or website, or prevent users from accessing legal data anywhere on the net. While some define Internet Freedom in liberal, individualist, and elite terms, grassroots organizers and low-income communities understand Internet Freedom to be rules that protect our ability to define our own experience on the web and to have a minimum of basic service that guarantees our democratic participation.
On the heels of the Internet shut down in Egypt, it is more critical than ever that democratic governments limit the authority of private interests to determine what we have access to on the web in order to make more while giving us less. Right now, wireless users aren't protected by the FCC's net neutrality rules- providing us with immediate examples of what happens when a vulnerable community is abandoned to private interests.
MetroPCS, termed "Ghettro PCS" by many low-income black and latino subscribers, is a cell phone company that specifically targets its low-cost plans at low-income consumers. On its face, that sounds great. As a black working class wireless user, I want low cost service. But here's the catch -- while MetroPCS claims to offer unlimited service -- it's cheapest packages block phone users from access to the full Internet- allowing them to only use a few sites like Facebook and YouTube. Some say limited access is better than no access at all. But the real question is why can't low-income phone users get great service at low cost without blocking their access to the whole Internet?
This is the question that MetroPCS and their allies in the DC beltway have failed to adequately answer.
The fact is, there are a host of pricing frameworks that could allow equal web access to low-income cell phone users, with no blocking, but I suspect it is not as profitable for MetroPCS. Tiered pricing, which is the kind of pricing framework that makes you pay for specific services as you use them, isn't inherently bad. But tiered pricing that blocks and discriminates against low-income wireless users is wrong, and it violates net neutrality principles. The same principles that protect you when you use your computer at home. The same principles which Congress is seeking to do away with at their hearing today.
That's why I have joined the call to action, and I hope readers of this opinion piece will join as well.
In the DC beltway, there are those who seek to speak for us, who claim that it is patronizing to suggest that low-income wireless users should have equal access to the same news, information, and other content that wealthier cell phone users get. They say the choice is between us having nothing, or us having next to nothing. I submit that this is a false choice. I submit that there is one Internet for us all, and no Internet company should deny us that access.
In the final analysis, the struggle for Internet Freedom for low-income communities is no different than our struggle against check cashing companies that pose as banks in our neighborhoods, or the widespread fast food joints that populate our community, or the calling card companies that sell to us through our local corner store. All of these companies meet a felt need. We need access to loans and to money, we need inexpensive food, we need the ability to call our families oversees and in jail. But we do not deserve to be poverty pimped by these industries because we need what they sell. We struggle as low income people because there is a lack of living wage jobs, a lack of education, a lack of opportunity, and no one -- not MetroPCS, not beltway groups who claim to represent us -- should take advantage of that fact.
We are low-income, working class, lower-middle class. And yes, we still deserve the best democracy has to offer. Tell Congress not to put our Internet rights on the open market.