“People are not stupid. They believe things for reasons. The last way for skeptics to get the attention of bright, curious, intelligent people is to belittle or condescend or to show arrogance toward their beliefs.” ~Carl Sagan
People of color and members of low-income communities too often fall on the wrong side of the digital and communications divides and face historic achievement gaps compared to their non-minority counterparts. For these groups, the Internet provides the first opportunity in the history of our nation to overcome generations of detrimental policies that continually leave us voiceless, vote-less, economically distressed, and politically underrepresented. Meaningful participation in our increasingly digital economy, then, requires the adoption of policies that strike the right balance between protecting and promoting the Open Internet, fostering greater consumer protection, and allowing entrepreneurial and socio-economic development opportunities to abound.
Understanding history helps put the importance of the Internet in context. During the Agricultural Age people of color were enslaved. The Industrial Era kept us separate and unequal under Jim Crow. The Internet being the great equalizer that it can be, minority-focused and led organizations, and like-minded individuals, have been keenly focused on ways to promote Internet Equity, the idea that all people are entitled to actively participate in the Internet economy, not just as consumers but as owners of infrastructure, ideas, and innovative applications. In recent months, advocates for “net equity” have faced unfair and misguided criticism for their belief that the Federal Communications Commission can best promote its Open Internet goals by employing section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Invoking this provision allows the Commission to fully enforce its proposed “net neutrality” rules. It also avoids the alternative approach of reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II of the 1934 Telecommunications Act, an approach that could have a crippling, rippling effect across the entire Internet ecosystem.
Legitimate debate and open dialogue is the best we can hope for in an informed democracy. Instead, we too often trade substance for sound bites, dumbing down the critical issues of our day so that it is impossible to have meaningful conversations about them. Such is the case of the current net neutrality debate in which the merits of a section 706 approach are often ignored in favor of baseless insults. Why address an issue head on and engage in substantive debate on policy differences when you can more easily label folks “sellouts” or “corporate hacks”? Misdirecting attention away from the actual matter at hand may be great for creating frenzy and making lots of noise, but it’s not so great for policymaking or actual progress.
Politically speaking, conservatives have long-since mastered the art of righteous dissemblance, convincing the under resourced and ill-informed to advocate policies inherently against their interest. Unfortunately, however, some progressives are hot on their heels. Particularly in matters of technology and telecommunications policy, it’s become popular to peddle platitudes and name-call while meaningful opportunities to engage on the merits fall by the wayside.
To be clear, the actual net neutrality debate is not about whether the Internet will or will not remain open. It is about the legal authority the FCC should use to support enforcement of the open Internet rules it is going to adopt. Some critics of the section 706 approach have unfairly criticized minority organizations and organizations of supporting the FCC’s attempts to allow “fast lanes” online…except, that’s not at all what the Commission plans to do. To the contrary, in the Open Internet Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released in May, Chairman Tom Wheeler declared that ours would not become an Internet of “haves” and “have nots” under his watch, with the Commission even considering an outright ban of paid prioritization schemes.
What the FCC is proposing is far less sexy and salacious than anything that’s likely to hit our inboxes from email campaigns designed to incite fear and drive fundraising dollars to organizations that depend on enduring controversy to meet their budgetary demands. And yet, from the hyperbolic chatter we often read online or hear spouted from the mouths of various media and advocacy personalities, you’d think that a nefarious attempt to destroy the Internet was afoot.
Supporting an Open Internet is a priority on which few people actually disagree (though there are different opinions on how best to bolster the FCC’s enforcement authority). Our focus, then, should really be on promoting net equity. To achieve meaningful ownership opportunities of the Internet, and to ensure that all people have a chance to participate in the digital economy, not just as consumers but as producers of products and services online, or as infrastructure owners and network operators, we may have to occasionally apply affirmative action-like principles to ensure the more equitable treatment of people of color, women, and members of low-income communities in this country. In supporting Internet-based affirmative action schemes, we need fair policies that promote innovative new business models and create access to capital for startups and would-be entrepreneurs looking to pave bold new paths in this space. This kind of flexibility is possible with section 706, which is why so many informed people of color, myself included, support this approach to Open Internet enforcement.
Reasonable minds may disagree. But we will not be able to truly address this (or any) complex policy decisions if we continue to waste so much time and energy distracted from the real goal – Net Equity.
As the FCC determines what legal authority it will use to enforce its Open Internet rules, an important decision faces us as a community of individuals concerned about the fate of our nation. The time is now for us to choose between sound bites and substance. If Internet equity is a real priority, we cannot continue to let our issues and communities get lost in the net neutrality debate.