On Feb. 26 the Federal Communications Commission — the U.S. equivalent to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission — ruled in favour of net neutrality, in a decision many social justice groups applaud as a move to ensure equal access for all.
Net neutrality supports the view of the internet as a public utility, with internet service providers and the government treating all internet traffic the same. Many social justice groups, such as Color of Change, Free Press and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, argue that net neutrality is in fact a civil rights issue.
Native Public Media, which promotes media access and ownership in Native American communities, was one of several civil rights groups leading the fight to support net neutrality. Native American communities are often victims of the digital divide, where minority communities lag behind in access to broadband internet. A 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center showed that “74% of whites and 62% of African Americans and roughly half of Hispanics (56%) have high-speed Internet access at home.” The disparity dramatically increases for Native Americans. The FCC has stated that 90 per cent of Native American communities do not have access to high-speed internet.
Loris Taylor, president and CEO of Native Public Media, says the FCC’s ruling is essential to keeping the internet open and accessible.
Overturning net neutrality would allow internet service providers to set up “fast lanes” or premium services, where customers who pay more get faster internet speeds. Internet service providers could also control access to different content, sites, and platforms, effectively deciding what people can and cannot see.
Native Public Media took an active role in alerting Native Americans to the value of an open internet and current net neutrality rules. It held educational seminars, where people discussed the significance of net neutrality, and activists lobbied the FCC and congressional representatives. The organization also adopted a resolution supporting net neutrality, and group members personally met with FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.
“The net neutrality decision is huge for Native Americans. It is a decision about discrimination, affordability, the digital divide, equality and freedom,” Taylor says.
Lining up behind an open internet
Mark Trahant, a Native American journalist and college professor, agrees with Taylor that traffic prioritization would further lead to privileged access. The great thing about the Internet, says Trahant, is the “democratization of content” it allows. “Anyone can put something on the Internet.”
Maintaining net neutrality is essential for people of colour, says Michael Scurato, policy director for the National Hispanic Media Coalition. They have used the internet not only to tell their own stories, but also as an effective 21st-century organizing tool.
According to Scurato, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a former civil rights activist, has stated that he wished the internet was available in the 1960s, because it would have been an effective way of mobilizing people.
“The internet allows for us to control our message,” explains Brandi Collins, media director for Color of Change. She points out that in recent protests over a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, people were able to access live pictures and video before the traditional media even covered the story.
In a media landscape where about six corporations control 90 per cent of the media, Collins says, an open internet becomes even more vital.
Squeezing customers, choking the internet
Internet service providers are looking for additional ways to squeeze money out of customers as broadband acceptance reaches a saturation point. Corporations opposing net neutrality are predominantly driven by money, according to Scurato. “It’s strictly to develop new revenue streams,” he comments.
Cable companies are not exactly popular with consumers. Joe Torres, senior external affairs director at Free Press, an interest group that works on media and telecommunications policy, says many members of the public have had bad experiences with cable companies and watched their bills continue to rise without improved service. He says the public doesn’t want to put their digital rights in the hands of huge cable companies.
A 2012 court brief shows that Verizon argued for internet service providers to have what it called “editorial discretion” over Internet traffic:
Broadband providers transmit their own speech both by developing their own content and by partnering with other content providers and adopting that speech as their own. For example, they develop video services, which draw information from, and are then made available over, the Internet. Many also select or create content for their own over-the-top video services or offer applications that provide access to particular content. They also transmit the speech of others: each day millions of individuals use the Internet to promote their own opinions and ideas and to explore those of others, and broadband providers convey those communications.
According to Verizon, internet service providers should be able to filter what users see. “Just as a newspaper is entitled to decide which content to publish and where, broadband providers may feature some content over others,” says the court brief.
Tiered network access would mean that only those who could afford increased internet rates would be able to produce and broadcast content, which seriously concerns civil rights groups.
Davey D, a Bay Area journalist and college professor, says the current net neutrality rules give minorities equal access to the internet — a status quo that must be maintained.
“It allows everyone to be on an equal playing field.”