Net Neutrality: Wishing We Were All on the Same Team

We are witnessing a critical moment in U.S. history that comes once in a lifetime.

The Internet is the most transformative communications network ever created. Throughout history, changes in technology have always led to the creation of new media systems like radio and cable TV. And when this happens, the government is confronted with a critical question: Should it pass rules to allow for the greatest public participation in this new media system, or should it turn over control to corporate interests?

The government has always caved to corporate interests, which is why few people of color own broadcast stations today and are routinely marginalized by the news media.

But the government now has a chance to finally get it right by passing rules to protect our Internet freedoms and the interests of the public.

Telecom companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have other plans, and are pouring millions into derailing the FCC’s effort to pass strong Net Neutrality rules. They’re using scare tactics to drum up opposition so they can bully the FCC into giving them the legal authority to discriminate online.

These companies want total control over the public’s ability to access the Web sites and content of their choice online so they can increase their profit margins and please their Wall Street investors.

One bogus argument they’re pushing is that Net Neutrality will widen the digital divide, despite presenting no credible evidence to prove their point.

The civil rights community has a long history of fighting for greater media access, including fighting to close the digital divide. But during this debate, I have been troubled that several groups have seemed to accept the arguments made by the telecom companies, and are now either opposing or are skeptical about Net Neutrality protections.

I have had a good relationship with many groups opposing the FCC’s Net Neutrality efforts and consider many people working for these groups my friends.

So this is why I disagree with another friend of mine, Garlin Gilchrist II, who referred to organizations like the Broadband Opportunities Coalition and Minority Media and Telecommunications Council as “Digital Divide Astroturf Groups” on this site last week. I disagree that these groups are Astroturf (fake grassroots organizations that push corporate agendas while pretending to work for the public’s interest). I have worked with several civil rights groups associated with these organizations through the years on key policy issues, such as preventing media consolidation and increasing the number of people of color who own broadcast stations.

Although these groups work hard on representing the interests of people of color, I’m still concerned that their positions on Net Neutrality may harm communities of color. The fight for a neutral Net is a fight against media consolidation online, and it’s a fight to prevent what has happened in traditional media from repeating itself on the Internet.

Over the last few months, I have attended meetings with and the Center for Media Justice in Washington, along with several civil rights groups and congressional staffers. I have also had private conversations with a number of groups and have strongly expressed my disagreements with the positions they’ve taken. A few conversations even turned into spirited debates.

I agree with FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn, who have called on the civil rights community to support Net Neutrality so we don’t repeat our past mistakes.

Earlier this year, Clyburn said:

    “… I hope we can work together to create strong rules that do not cede control of the most significant communications advancement in our lifetimes “By sitting this one out, or worse, by throwing up roadblocks that will enable what is now 'our' Internet to become 'their' Internet, we simply would be reinstating the very kinds of imbalanced structures that we have been attempting for decades to dismantle in other contexts."

I still hold out hope that several key civil rights groups will support Net Neutrality. I believe they will find themselves on the right side of history.

And personally, I look forward to being on the same team again.