A cornerstone of the civil rights community has long been to ensure that communities of color achieve economic self-reliance. Now that we are living in an information-based economy, this goal is more important than ever. The civil rights community has an important role and responsibility to ensure that America’s minority populations are prepared to compete entrepreneurially, and provide for their families and civic institutions in this new, burgeoning digital economy.
To date, there has been much consensus among the nation’s leading civil rights organizations regarding how to best position minority communities to benefit from, and contribute to, the world’s new Internet-based society.
Unfortunately, not everyone sees this as a good thing.
A recent article commentary by former New York Congressman Ed Towns sheds light on recent attacks aimed at the civil rights community for their policy positions on net neutrality and other telecom-related issues.
Towns highlights that “[i]n recent months, the media and telecom policy world has been the epicenter of public incivility aimed at mainstream national organizations representing minorities, women, gays and disabled citizens. These organizations’ only transgression has been taking positions on telecom policy issues that are driven by their mission of advancing digital civil rights.”
Many view heightened Internet regulation or the implementation of tougher net neutrality rules as contentious. However, the civil rights community has been very disciplined and clear regarding their shared position on this issue.
When it comes to regulation of the Internet, the civil rights community believes there are certainly areas that warrant some regulation in order to protect minority consumers. For example, carriers should exercise full transparency when dealing with issues such as rates, terms, and conditions. Ensuring that communities of color have access to digital literacy learning tools is also profoundly important to advancing minority communities and ensuring digital equality and inclusion, as is ensuring that the blocking by carriers of lawful content, devices and apps is proscribed.
However, policies that stand to increase costs, compromise reliability of broadband services, or impose market entry barriers on minority digital entrepreneurs are among the issues that concern civil rights groups. While the civil rights community agrees that there is a need for some regulation to protect minority consumers, the “net neutrality violations” that many public interest advocacy groups are touting have occurred on such rare occasions that national civil rights organizations believe more harm than good may result from over-regulation. Violations that have materialized over the past decade have been quickly exposed and put to rest by informed online activists, eliminating any need to tighten net neutrality rules at this time.
According to Brent Wilkes, Executive Director of the League of United Latin Americans Citizens (LULAC), LULAC’s concern is with any adverse impact that over-reaching net regulation can have on broadband adoption. In an interview with Hispanic Link, Wilkes stated: “What we don’t want net neutrality to do is drive up price. We know that our communities are price-sensitive.”
In a recent Politic365 interview, David Honig, President and CEO of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC), stated that MMTC’s position on net neutrality mirrors the position of many mainstream civil rights organizations that weighed in on this issue. According to Honig, “[w]hen the FCC adopted its 2010 net neutrality rules, MMTC endorsed them unequivocally, as did numerous other national civil rights organizations, some public interest advocacy organizations such as Public Knowledge, and Democratic congressional leadership with expertise on the topic.”
With the civil rights community making a clear case for their policy views, why do we continue to see civil rights groups used as personal punching bags by some public interest organizations with little knowledge of the needs of minority communities? Public interest groups sometimes appear to have the mentality that ‘unless the civil rights community stays in lockstep with our deeply regulatory concept of net neutrality, then it’s best that they stay out of the conversation entirely.’ That is unfortunate.
The civil rights community should be commended for working to ensure that our communities are benefiting from broadband technology in every way possible. Today’s ubiquitous, exponentially-growing Internet is delivering countless opportunities for the U.S. economy by way of job creation, private investment, and technology innovation. For communities of color, students are gaining greater access to education through online degrees and E-learning opportunities, and senior citizens are learning ways to better manage their health and reduce costs. These examples only begin to scratch the surface.
During a keynote speech delivered by Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League (NUL), Morial stated that broadband access and affordability is one of the “new civil rights issues of our time.” I see much truth to this statement. Having affordable and accessible broadband is no longer a privilege — it is what all Americans need to remain competitive in today’s economy and to remain relevant in the country’s ever-changing political landscape.
Bottom line: I agree with Congressman Towns. America needs a respectful, merits-based debate on the future of the Internet. Civil rights groups — whose mission is protecting and advancing those least well served by technology throughout history — are an essential participant in that debate if the nation is to close the digital divide and live out the creed of equal opportunity.