First off, what is net neutrality? It means that you have the right to access all internet content on equal terms. With net neutrality, your ISP — think Comcast or AT&T — can’t decide that it doesn’t like the reporting from a content provider like the Washington Post and make the Post’s site load slowly (or not at all). This is a big deal. Because we have short attention spans, people will visit a website less often if it loads more slowly than a close competitor by more than 250 milliseconds – literally less than the blink of an eye (400milliseconds).
The new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, wants to get rid of rules that currently prevent this practice. His reason for removing these rules? To foster “innovation.”
Now that that’s out of the way, why is this a racial justice issue? It’s because the innovations Chairman Pai has in mind will result in corporate censorship of the internet, and the perspectives and content that matter to communities of color will suffer. The FCC and the ISPs say that these harms are just speculative and that ISPs are going to protect net neutrality and an open internet voluntarily. I don’t think it’s just speculation, but before I can explain why, here are a couple of baseline assumptions:
- Money is power;
- People of color have less money, in large part due to discriminatory government policies (for every dollar of wealth a white household has, a Hispanic household has about 10 cents and a black household has less than eight cents);
- Internet service providers, like most corporations, are amoral and motivated by money and profits.
CLICK TO TWEET: Protect #NetNeutrality to ensure that communities of color access news & info about their communities. @greenlining
Given those assumptions, let’s look at what a post net-neutrality world would look like. ISPs would be allowed to slow your connection to certain websites, block content, and charge companies to get priority access to the internet, essentially putting toll booths on what is currently a free and open road. Assumption #3 means that they will engage in those activities because it’s a moneymaker. So right away, any promises from the ISPs to protect net neutrality absent regulation are suspect. In fact, when Verizon sued the FCC to get rid of net neutrality rules in 2013, Verizon’s lawyer told the court it would explore arrangements to favor some preferred services, content, or sites over others if the rules were removed. The racial justice problem is that only rich and powerful companies will be able to afford preferential treatment. Content providers that cater to communities of color or uplift non-mainstream ideas won’t be able to afford this priority treatment (see assumptions #1 and 2).
This paves the way for your ISP to curate a “priority” internet that’s like your average mall food court, full of bland mass-market options that are serviceable but missing the truly diverse and unique offerings that make the internet such a valuable tool for communities of color. Imagine living next door to a vibrant Chinatown, but only being able to order food from Panda Express. India recently rejected an extreme version of this food-court Internet plan, a service called Free Basics that would have given India’s citizens free access to a heavily curated list of sites (it gave access to Bing but not Google for example). When explaining why, Sunil Abraham, the executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society India said, “Even if somebody spends 90 percent of their time on Facebook, that 10 percent is equally as important.”
In addition to internet tolls that will silence voices in communities of color, without net neutrality, media companies will likely invest less in diverse content. A study showed that in a regulatory environment with net neutrality, media firms will invest in media diversity to attract demand and advertising revenues. Without net neutrality, that won’t always happen, since larger media firms can protect themselves from competition by purchasing priority on ISP networks.
For political reasons, ISPs in the UK began blocking pornography at the request of the government, but those blocks grew to cover sites like sherights.com a pro-womens’ rights blog, or a website covering the Syrian war. In the absence of net neutrality protections, ISPs will face similar pressure to engage in content discrimination, and in the process will silence freedom of speech. This isn’t without precedent. Verizon was criticized in the past for blocking a pro-choice group from using Verizon’s text messaging service to communicate with members. AT&T censored a Pearl Jam webcast during which the band criticized President Bush. Without net neutrality protections, controversial opinions could be throttled or blocked out of existence.
We need to keep our net neutrality protections to ensure that communities of color have access to news and information about their communities, are able to create and distribute content, and have the ability to make their voices heard.
Vinhcent is a Telecommunications Legal Fellow. Follow him on Twitter.