Net Neutrality Is the Civil Rights Act for the Internet

This piece originally appeared in Truthout.

The mainstream media has been marveling lately at the grassroots movement that took on the powerful telecom industry and has all but won the battle for Net Neutrality. Activists successfully rallied the public to put mounting pressure on the Federal Communication Commission to do something that seemed nearly impossible a year ago: reclassify the Internet as a "common carrier" telecommunications service subject to tough rules that would ensure that powerful companies can't control what we see and do online. The agency is expected to approve those rules on Thursday.

This, however, is only part of the story.

Corporate news outlets were quick to report on the so-called "fast lanes" and "slow lanes" that could drive up the price of a Netflix subscription, but missing from the headlines was the ongoing debate over Net Neutrality within the civil rights movement and the contributions of its activists to the cause. The lack of coverage is a perfect example of why civil rights activists like Malkia Cyril say Net Neutrality -- which Cyril calls "the free speech principle on the Internet" -- is central to the struggle for racial justice.

Cyril is founder and executive director of the Oakland-based Center for Media Justice and co-founder of the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), a coalition of 175 grassroots community groups that have been a driving force behind the Net Neutrality movement. Truthout caught up with Cyril last week -- just as MAG-Net launched #DontBlockMyInternet, a series of protests in cities across the country challenging last-ditch attempts by big telecom companies and conservative politicians to thwart the FCC's Net Neutrality plan -- to find out why fighting for a free and open internet is fighting for civil rights.  (This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

Truthout: Tell me a little about #DontBlockMyInternet.

Malkia Cyril: When we started this fight over a year ago, most members of Congress either said they didn't know about the issue, or they didn't care about it, or they were opposed to it. They were opposed to Net Neutrality. … The big internet service providers said it's bad for business, it's going destroy innovation. Communities of color hadn't heard about it. They [were] like, "that sounds interesting but, you know, it's very technocratic, very wonky." And over the past year, Netroots activists and policy advocates and a whole host of startup companies, including Etsy and Yelp and all these different kind of innovators, right, [and] artists, came together with local communities, communities of color, and organizations that represent those communities, basically to demand that the Federal Communications Commission actually pass rules that will guarantee the internet remains a level playing field for generations to come.

And we're winning that. Last week or two weeks ago the FCC chairman let folks know that he is in fact planning to propose very strong Net Neutrality rules grounded in the Title II section of the Communications Act … which gives the FCC the authority to actually implement Net Neutrality.

Unfortunately, those big ISPs, they will never stop fighting to control the internet. It's a very lucrative platform, and so they are threatening to sue. Members of Congress, both on the GOP side and in the Tri-Caucus [the Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus and the Asian Pacific American Caucus] who have financial ties to the cable industry, are trying to pull out legislation that would strip the FCC of the of the authority they need to implement fairness rules and then would also gut Net Neutrality … And then on top of that you have the legacy civil rights community that really, it also has extraordinary ties, financial ties, to the cable industry, and the cable industry has been lobbying both Congress and the civil rights community very, very hard for many, many years on these issues. So, in that context, over the course of the next weeks, a lot could change.

So, even though the chairman announced his intention, we are very clear that the powers that be do not want this to happen, and they are doing everything they can to ensure that it doesn't. And so, we felt at the Media Action Grassroots Network that we need to do everything that we could to make sure that it does. Our power is people, you know? Our power is the relationships that we have in local communities all across this country. We're a national network of 175 groups, and so … we decided to take the internet service providers to task, and we're hosting a series of actions called #DontBlockMyInternet, actions that are taking place in cities across this country. 

The other thing that is exciting right now about these actions is that also for the first time, these actions are being led by communities of color. These actions are being led by organizations that are racial justice groups, social justice groups, grounded in underrepresented communities. Now that is unheard of on this issue. This issue is generally not seen as a racial justice issue, but in the past six months, we've organized our partnership with Black Lives Matter. We've elevated voices … who work to stop the mass deportation of migrants. Our partners at the National Hispanic Media Coalition have really interrupted the legacy civil rights groups in Latino communities that were opposed to Net Neutrality and really brought forward the new generation of Latino civil rights organizers that were supporting it. And that's what we did also in the black community.

So, I think these actions are more than just a pushback to the internet service providers. These actions are also an announcement to everyone that there is a new generation of civil rights leadership, and our digital rights are as important to us as our rights around incarceration, and our rights around policing, our rights around food and housing. Our right to communicate is on par with these other rights, and we are demonstrating that through these actions. 

TO: Your coalitions have framed Net Neutrality as a civil rights and racial justice issue. Can you get into that a little bit? Why it is a civil rights issue? 

MC: The way that we understand Net Neutrality is, in reality, we understand that there is no neutral network. We know that. Communities of color, poor people, we are under no illusion that these rules ensure full fairness for us. What it does do, however, is it prevents the big internet service providers from making things worse, right? It prevents an even greater inequity online that exists today. So, I am going to start by saying that right away. We know that no networks are truly neutral, but to a degree that we can apply rules that keep it fair, we're going to fight for that. So that's number one, right? Number two … In 1965, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, it was passed to ensure, to prevent discrimination in housing and transportation. It was basically the act the ended legal Jim Crow. And Net Neutrality prevents legal Jim Crow online. It prevents people without means, who are disproportionately people of color, people without wealth, small businesses, independent artists, regular people, it prevents them from having to be tracked into a subpar and inferior internet experience and internet life.

Right now, the internet undergirds not just a lot of our government, but also a lot of businesses, it's integrated into a lot of business models. It undergirds our educational system, right? Tests are being done online and homework is being provided online and [it's] how people apply for jobs; I mean, our entire economy is becoming digitized. So, when you push a set of people into a slow lane or into a lane that doesn't exist at all … if you push them out, then they can't - we can't - engage in the economy, we cannot engage politically, we cannot engage. So we look at Net Neutrality as a Civil Rights Act for the internet and we fight for it on that basis.

Now … these [technologies] that we use to navigate and make life easier … their usage and their benefits are determined by who owns and controls them. With the internet, Net Neutrality creates an opportunity for somebody other than the most powerful corporations to control the internet. It creates some room for an everyday person like myself. I can't own a TV station, but I can own a website. Personally, I'm going to fight for that right because I want to bypass those corporate gatekeepers. I want to control my own voice. I want to tell my own story. I want to be able to navigate and work with my community to elevate our voice in the chimney of the mainstream media, and the only way for me to do that is to ensure that Net Neutrality is understood as a civil right, that internet freedom is understood as a civil right, that these are not only civil rights but human rights. A civil right actually just codifies a human right in state law and national law. That's all civil rights are: the codification of a human right for the civilians that live in a particular region.

And so that's what we are talking about, simple civil rights, that are going to redistribute that First Amendment in a way that's more fair. It's going to redistribute the Fourth Amendment in a way that's more fair. And that's what we're looking for. That's why Net Neutrality is inherently a civil rights issue, because it redistributes power, it redistributes access, and it redistributes representation and visibility in a way that no other set of rules has been able to do online. 

TO: I've been thinking a lot about the town hall that you organized last year with Chairman Wheeler, and I feel like that really set the stage, that really set a tone for me with my reporting for the rest of the year, and I also wonder if it had a big impact on Wheeler, too, because it does seem like he's been listening to the public. Are you surprised about his turnaround with Title II, and how his stance has changed over the past year since we met in Oakland? 

MC: I can say that I am pleased by it. I won't say that I'm surprised by it in the way that some might some feel.… Chairman Wheeler has experience lobbying. He is an experienced lobbyist. So, I think he's very clear on the dynamics of power at work here. I think what he is also clear about, is that he has the opportunity to do something great, and as the chair of the Federal Communications Commission, I think he faced a choice: to do something that would go down in history as the thing that codifies discrimination into the internet … or, he could be remembered as the chairman that was great and took that risk and codified fairness into the internet. And I think that he chose to be remembered as somebody who codified fairness.

He had to struggle with that decision for several months, you know. He struggled with that decision, he stepped back from the public view for some time to struggle with that decision. But ultimately what Chairman Wheeler understands and what I believe Commissioner Clyburn understands and what I believe Commissioner Rosenworcel understands is that a vast majority of Americans have spoken, the vast majority of people in this country want a fair internet. And only the elite, only the elite want something different … that's one of the strengths of grassroots organizing is it really highlighted the fact that a vast majority of people want this, including the vast majority of businesses.

I think I will say, besides what legacy he wants to leave, I think the other thing that became really clear is that the lies that have been told by the industry were in fact lies, right? Journalists effectively debunked many of the myths about how Net Neutrality was going to, you know, "harm investment." I mean, Sprint came out on its own to say, "You know what, that's not just not true, it's not going to harm out investment." Verizon was forced by its shareholders to admit, this is not going to harm our investment, you feel me? I mean, these companies were forced by public pressure to acknowledge that they in fact have been lying.

So I think, in that context, would you really be, as a chairman, as a representative of a consumer agency, when you see the vast majority of the people you're sworn to protect saying, "Hell no, we don't want this, we want Title II, we want Net Neutrality." When you see the companies who were supposedly the ones you were previously aligned [with] be exposed as liars and cheats and greedy people, greedy institutions, when you see that one after the other Congress member changed their position to support Net Neutrality, what choice do you have? What choice do you have but to do the right thing? 

TO: Right. With that in mind, I've been noticing that the mainstream media seemed to be pretty amazed by how grassroots campaigns and letter-writing campaigns have had this huge impact of millions of comments coming in to the FCC, and that consumer advocates have really taken on a really powerful industry and won here. But I wonder if you think the mainstream media has ignored some of the contributions of civil rights and racial justice groups on this issue, because I know there has been a lot of activism around that. 

MC: Absolutely. I would say that anybody who is actually looking at this issue can tell you, any journalist who is actually paying attention to this issue, for more than a day, can tell you that there were three primary obstacles to Net Neutrality becoming a reality. One: the GOP. Two: The incumbent ISPs. Those companies. Three: The legacy civil rights community. Now, every single one of those three used communities of color as a front for a claiming that Net Neutrality was a bad thing.… Right now, for example, the GOP is asserting that Net Neutrality is going to harm broadband access in communities of color. Members of Congress have said that Net Neutrality and Title II is going to increase the price of broadband so … it won't be good for poor people and people of color. And the legacy civil rights community has jumped on both of those bandwagons, right? A big portion of the argument against Net Neutrality was the argument that it's bad for people of color.

So, race has been in this conversation from day one. It's a huge part of the conversation. And yet, the vast majority of the advocates and the advocacy organizations that work on this issue do not have strong roots in communities of color. Now, they are brilliant people, they are brilliant advocates, and they've done a tremendous, tremendous job, but they needed help. They needed partners. And that's where I think our group came in. Not just as the Media Action Grassroots Network, but also,,, National Hispanic Media Coalition … We worked with dozens and dozens of organizations. It's because of those groups, those new civil rights leaders, it's because Black Lives Matter stood up and took a position in support of Net Neutrality, it's because of those folks that the civil rights organizations that have serious, financial ties to the cable industry, were delegitimized on this issue, OK? It's because of those groups that the members of the Tri-Caucus that were also standing as a front in Congress, to say that this was bad for communities of color - not only was that position delegitimized, it's the reason why many of those members of Congress have now shifted their position and are now standing in support of Title II network neutrality. It's why the NAACP chapter president in North Carolina came out a few days ago with a video saying, "let the FCC do its job. I support Title II Net Neutrality" … breaking ranks at the chapter level from the national organization.

The only reason that any of those groups were able to happen is because a new wave of civil rights leadership stood up, took this issue on bravely, took the hits. We took many hits from our wayward friends in the civil rights community; in Congress, we took many hits; from the companies, many hits; and we stood up bravely and we took those hits even though we're tiny and they're huge. And it's because of that bravery that we were able to change the tide on how race was being used as a wedge on this issue.

And so, I think that the sad thing is that the mainstream media is more interested in scale than in actual truth. It's more interested in the millions of people who pressed the button, or who made a phone call (which is equally as important). We needed those millions of people to press a button, to take action and make a phone call, and we needed groups like Free Press and Demand Progress and CREDO and Fight for the Future... and we need all of that. The problem is, all those other parts aren't being acknowledged. And the part that has been so central to this campaign is not being spoken about, and I think the reason for that is the same reason why we need to win Net Neutrality, so we can control our own voices, so we can tell a story that we know to be true … Because we know that the mainstream media, and those who experience the same privilege as those who run that media, they are not going to tell the story in the way that it needs to be told. They are going to tell a different story. They are going to tell a story that only observes and sees power - you know, traditional power. But it was in fact the decentralized power of local organizations all across this country that turned the tide on this issue. I feel particularly very proud of those organizations. I feel proud of these alliances, and I am very happy to say that some of those [national] groups - Demand Progress, CREDO, Free Press, Fight for the Future, Popular Resistance - really partnered with us in a beautiful way.

So I want to just call upon the mainstream media to bear witness and tell the whole story. Tell the whole story. Because the whole story is a good story.