Will our voices be silenced on the Internet?

Net neutrality ruling a major blow to communities of color

January 25, 2014 12:30PM ET
John Giustina/Getty Images

The open Internet has provided people of color and other marginalized groups an unprecedented opportunity to tell their own stories and to organize for racial and social justice. The principle of the open Internet, sometimes referred to as “Net neutrality,” prevents Internet service providers (ISPs) from interfering with, blocking or discriminating against Web content.

Several advocacy groups have used the open Internet to organize online campaigns to protest against racism, hate speech and unfair treatment of immigrants. For example, Color of Change, an online advocacy organization, uses the open Internet as a tool to empower the black community to speak out against injustice and to make government more responsive to its concerns. The immigrant-rights group Presente has organized online campaigns to challenge inhumane immigration policies. Colorlines, a daily news website that focuses on racial justice, relies on the open Internet as a platform to report on critical stories often ignored by the mainstream media.

But this may all come to an end.

On Jan. 14, the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that ISPs such as Verizon and AT&T can censor, block and interfere with Web traffic and content online. The court struck down the Federal Communication Commission’s 2010 Open Internet order, which was intended to provide Internet users with some protection to access the content of their choice online without interference.

Verizon sued the FCC in 2011 following the passage of those rules. The telecom giant argued that, like newspapers, ISPs should have the First Amendment right to “edit” the Internet and determine what content flows over their wires.

With Verizon’s triumph, there’s nothing stopping ISPs from becoming our Internet overlords. And if you believe what Verizon told the court, that day is coming.

Asked by federal judges whether Verizon planned to prioritize some websites and online services over others, the company’s lawyer said last year that her client would be “exploring those types of arrangements” if it weren’t for the FCC rules.

There’s nothing holding back Verizon and other ISPs now. They have the power to determine whose voices will be heard online and which ones will be silenced. They also have the power to block unpopular speech. And this may mean the silencing the voices of those fighting for social and racial justice — especially the voices of people of color.

The end of net neutrality would be a tremendous loss for marginalized voices and the democratic debate they enrich.

“Black folks' ability to be heard is now in real danger,” said Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, in a statement last week. “Our communities rely on the Internet to speak without a corporate filter, to access information and connect to the world.”

Jessica Gonzalez, executive vice president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, added that the ruling curtails the ability of members of her community to fight “discrimination, tell (their) own stories fairly and accurately, organize and even earn a living.”

Others say the ruling limits access to educational opportunities.

“Libraries rely upon the public availability of open, affordable internet access for school homework assignments, distance learning classes, e-government services, licensed databases, job-training videos, medical and scientific research, and many other essential services,” wrote Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association. “We must ensure the same quality access to online educational content as to entertainment and other commercial offerings.”

For too many U.S. households, the library is the only place to get high-speed Internet access, to look for jobs and to access other information that is relevant to their lives.

By threatening the access of communities of color to the information they need to participate fully in our society, the court’s decision reinforces the nation’s media inequality. People of color own only 3 percent of the nation’s commercial TV stations and 8 percent of commercial radio outlets. According to the FCC’s ownership records, the figure for TV does not even include black owners, since there are none. These communities’ lack of wealth due to our country’s history of discrimination is a primary reason few broadcast stations are owned by people of color.

To the extent that they are unable to speak for themselves, people of color are often subjected to stereotypical portrayal in the mainstream media. The court’s latest decision will further restrict the ability of people of color to tell their own stories and challenge prejudiced narratives.  

But it didn’t have to be this way.

The court’s decision was the result of the FCC’s failure to take appropriate legal action to protect net neutrality because of political pressure from the powerful telecom companies to deregulate the industry. 

In 2002 the FCC took the fateful step of defining broadband not as a telecommunications service but an information service. This meant the FCC chose not to treat ISPs as “common carriers” like the phone system, which would have prevented broadband providers from interfering with the content that flows through their networks.

This past decision guided the court’s ruling. It did not challenge the FCC’s rationale or justification for adopting open Internet rules. Rather, the court challenged the FCC’s authority to enforce those rules since it relinquished its authority to treat ISPs like common carriers.

President Obama campaigned on the promise to protect net neutrality. It is now up to Tom Wheeler, the new FCC’s chairman and former head of the cable and wireless associations, to make good on the president’s promise, reverse the FCC’s mistake and reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service subject to common carrier rules.

If the commission fails to reestablish its authority to regulate ISPs that provide us with access to the Internet, as the policy director for Center for Media Justice amalia deloney recently noted, the court decision “could signal the end of the Internet as we know it.” And that would be a tremendous loss for marginalized voices and the democratic debate they enrich.

Joseph Torres is the senior external affairs director for the media reform group Free Press.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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