Net Neutrality 101 for Communities of Color

Net Neutrality 101 for Communities of Color


The View from Navarrow Wright, Co-founder, Global Grind

Hey James – let me start by saying I am a true fan of Color of Change and have much respect for everything you’ve done for the movement. But right now your arguments don’t make a lot of sense, and you need to check your facts.

First off, all of the civil rights groups and the CBC have been big supporters of ensuring that companies cannot control the content and applications that people can access online. In fact, the civil rights groups fought hard to make sure the FCC developed the principles of net neutrality–this is nothing new, we’ve been living with net neutrality since 2004. Those principles made it possible for you to create Color of Change and for Senator Barack Obama to become President Obama. You should thank the people that helped make it all happen. Instead you question their sincerity.

We all know the fight today is between Google and the ISPs. And just because the arguments you make sound just like those made by Google and Public Knowledge, it doesn’t make you a bad guy. What I don’t understand though is why you are criticizing people who are looking for answers. You seem surprised that the CBC and civil right leaders are concerned that when the big companies fight each other the under served may lose?

Don’t you think the FCC should answer the questions raised by the civil rights leaders and CBC? Why is it wrong to ask the FCC to make sure the rules they are proposing will not widen the digital divide? Why is it wrong to ask the FCC to make sure the rules they develop will not lead to regressive pricing which would shackle poor people? Why is it wrong to ask that the costs be borne by the people that cause them and not by the underserved? Why are you so afraid of the answers to these questions?

Maybe you don’t quite grasp why minority leadership is vexed. Perhaps you’re too young to understand why many of our elders, who’ve given their lives and wear the scars of the struggle, feel the need to seek the truth. You might not understand why they don’t trust the FCC to get it right. Understandable mistakes if this is your first foray into media and communications issues…but there is a long history behind their deep skepticism and it makes sense that they would question the FCC on its intended course of action.

With all due respect to Commissioner Clyburn since this isn’t her fault–have you checked out the FCC’s record on minorities and women – on EEO enforcement (none lately), on saving Black radio (won’t even hold a damn hearing), even on multilingual emergency broadcasting (no movement since Katrina)? Please take a look – the FCC has failed miserably. Yet you are willing to put our fate in their hands without question?

Instead of playing this game of whose side is better and which argument is right, why don’t we join forces and seek the truth together? If our fears are not justified then we all win. If our fears are justified, then they must be addressed. We have too much at stake to not to get this right.

The View from James Rucker, Founder, Color of Change

It’s said that politics creates strange bedfellows. I was reminded how true this can be when I traveled to D.C. in recent weeks to figure out why several advocacy groups and legislators with histories of advocating for minority interests are lining up with big telecom companies in opposition to the FCC’s efforts to pass “Net Neutrality” rules.

Net Neutrality is the principle that prevents Internet Service Providers from controlling what kind of content or applications you can access online. It sounds wonky, but for Black and other communities, an open Internet offers a transformative opportunity to truly control our own voice and image, while reaching the largest number of people possible. This dynamic is one major reason why Barack Obama was elected president and why organizations like exist.

So I was troubled to learn that several Congressional Black Caucus members were among 72 Democrats to write the FCC last fall questioning the need for Net Neutrality rules. I was further troubled that a number of our nation’s leading civil rights groups had also taken positions questioning or against Net Neutrality, using arguments that were in step with those of the big phone and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast, which are determined to water down any new FCC rules.

Most unsettling about their position is the argument that maintaining Net Neutrality could widen the digital divide.

First, let’s be clear: the problem of the broadband digital divide is real. Already, getting a job, accessing services, managing one’s medical care–just to mention a few examples–are all facilitated online. Those who aren’t connected face a huge disadvantage in so many aspects of our society. Broadband access is a big problem — but that doesn’t mean it has anything to do with Net Neutrality.

Yet some in the civil rights community will tell you differently. They claim that if broadband providers can earn greater profits by charging content providers for access to the Internet “fast lane,” then they will lower prices to underserved areas. In other words, if Comcast — which already earns 80 percent profit margins on its broadband services — can increase its profits under a system without Net Neutrality, then they’ll all of a sudden invest in our communities. You don’t have to be a historian or economist to know that this type of trickle-down economics never works and has always failed communities of color.

Whether the phone and cable companies can make more money by acting as toll-takers on the Internet has nothing to do with whether they will invest in increased deployment of broadband. If these companies think investing in low-income communities makes good business sense, they will make the investment. Benevolence doesn’t factor into the equation.

On my trips to Washington, I met with some of the groups and congressional offices questioning or opposing Net Neutrality. I asked them what evidence they had to back up claims that undermining Net Neutrality would lead to an expansion of broadband to under-served communities, or that preserving Net Neutrality would thwart expansion. Not one could answer my question. Some CBC members hadn’t yet been presented with a counter to the industry’s arguments; others told stories about pressure from telecom companies or from other members of congress. As one CBC staffer told me, many CBC members have willingly supported the business agenda of telecom companies because the industry can be counted on to make campaign contributions, and they face no political backlash.

I also heard from people who don’t consider themselves against Net Neutrality, but who say their issue is prioritizing broadband expansion over maintaining Net Neutrality–as if the two have some intrinsic competitive relationship. When I’ve asked about the relationship, again, no one could provide anything concrete.

To those taking positions against Net Neutrality, I ask what sense it makes to undermine the very power of the Internet, especially for our communities, in order to provide access to everyone, presuming for a second the two were even connected. It’s like what we have with cable — our communities are saturated with programming that they cannot control, with no benefit of empowerment for anyone. Again, no one with whom I talked had an answer to this point.

Thankfully, there are an array of grassroots, media and social justice organizations that have not followed this line of reasoning and are actively supporting Network Neutrality, such as the Center for Media Justice and the Applied Research Center. Black and brown journalists and media groups who understand the need for unconstrained expression on the part of our communities are on the same page as well: the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, UNITY: Journalists of Color, the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, the National Association of Black Journalists, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition have all been vocal supporters of Net Neutrality.

Prominent lawmakers, including CBC members Reps. John Conyers, Maxine Waters, and Donna Edwards are vocal supporters, as are House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Obama — who has pledged to “take a back seat to no one” on the issue. And last week, Mignon Clyburn, a commissioner at the FCC, called out advocacy groups entrusted by many to represent our communities, for making half-baked arguments that completely miss the boat on the importance of Net Neutrality to our communities.

As Clyburn pointed out, far from being just a concern of the digital elite, Net Neutrality is essential to what makes the Internet a place where people of color and marginalized communities can speak for ourselves without first asking for permission from gatekeepers, and where small blogs, businesses, and organizations operate on a level playing field with the largest corporations. Net Neutrality regulations are needed to protect the status quo, because the telecom industry sees an opportunity for profit in fundamentally altering this basic aspect of the Internet.

In the coming weeks I plan to head back to DC to continue to fight for Net Neutrality. I’m hoping that on my next trip some of the anti-Net Neutrality civil rights groups or CBC members will heed my call and explain their position. I would like to believe that there is more to the “civil rights” opposition to Net Neutrality than money, politics, relationships, or just plain lack of understanding. For now, I’m doing my best to keep an open mind. But I don’t think it will stay that way for much longer.


  1. The only way to Net Neutrality is for those who can to be the ones who do.

    Get a WiMax router. Get the community connected. Off grid internet broadband wider and faster than the Internet itself. No fees to ISPs, bring local businesses on board, host websites in the community.

    Stop begging the piper to feed you and the nanny to bark at him.

    Serve yourself and your communities now.

    Every attempt at getting corpos to be citizens and every attempt at getting the system to behave ends up being used against the people. Campaign finance reform backfired. 527s allowed corporations to outfund candidates compared to the funding by the people. Why are citizens given a limit instead at all of orgs and businesses? And now campaign finance is completely at the opposite extreme. The only solution to problems is rolling up your sleeves and entering the ring and technologies are coming out now that can allow entire neighborhoods to be their own ISPs. That is the best option available and how can anyone be underserved when the neighborhoods start defining what the cutting edge is?

    Incidentally, say that getting 1 minute of video requires x MBs per minute and getting 1 minute of audio requires y MBs per minute. The difference between the technologies and the amount of bandwidth the same grade of service for both types of service requires are significant.

    Given a certain viewership load on content, shouldn't I pay more for the video than the audio if the effort to maintain gapless streaming of video requires more work on the part of ISPs than the audio. What I mean is say the ISP does nothing special and the viewership for both the audio and the video is the same and the service is absolutely saturated. The result is that the video customer will not get the full streaming speed they need while the audio customer has plenty of speed available. If the ISP decides to employ various traffic management techniques when the bottleneck is no longer the speed but the strategy so that the video customer gets a fair viewing experience while such measures are unnecesarry for the audio customer, shouldn't the video customer pay more for the extra consideration they get?

    Net Neutrality does not make sense as a solution to technical problems that do exist. You cannot simply demand performance and price scaling for high and low bandwidth users. Reality is reality. Some services require more effort. At the same time providing such effort to audio customers is pointless, you can't get better streaming than gapless streaming. They already hit the jackpot. Allowing the company to charge as much according to scale for the audio as the video screws the audio customer. Forcing the company to charge the video customer according scales as little as they do for the audio screws the company. And forcing them include the effort for both and the low price scale is ludicrous.


    The real danger of not having Net Neutrality is the fact that everybody wants to sell Ferraris and increasingly the Ferrari manufacturers are the ones building the roads. In other words, without net neutrality ISPs will gold rush to serve the NFL fans exclusively because that's where the money will be while little Mikey can't get any juice so he can do his online homework.

    That is a serious danger.

    But the only solution there is Neighbor Nets and the Home based cloud.