Editor’s note: AllDigitocracy is highlighting police beat reporting in light of the multiple stories in the news of late regarding the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police and the way news organizations have covered these stories. This three-part presentation of “Willful Blindness” is a continuation of that series.
The Fight for the Open Internet
It’s no accident that the voices of marginalized communities can be heard online. Throughout history, a series of public policy decisions enabled the Internet to develop as a decentralized communications network largely free of corporate and government censorship.
Thanks to this open architecture, the Internet has allowed marginalized communities to bypass traditional media and speak for themselves without needing to first seek permission from corporate gatekeepers. In fact, the Internet has provided a new generation of activists with the digital oxygen they need to help breathe life into their burgeoning movements.
But big Internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have long tried to kill Net Neutrality, the principle that requires ISPs to treat all online traffic equally. These companies want the power to censor, interfere with and discriminate against Web traffic, content and services. They want an online world where the rich pay more to ensure their content travels in the digital fast lane while the rest of us are relegated to the slow lane. This would create a separate and unequal Internet — making it harder for people of color to make their voices heard.
“Whether it’s the Movement for Black Lives, the Fight for $15, or an immigrant rights movement declaring ‘not one more,’ powerful 21st-century social justice movements require powerful communications platforms,” says Malkia Cyril, the executive director of the Center for Media Justice. “Decentralized platforms lead to diverse leadership where every voice can speak and be heard. Democratic platforms allow decisions to be made and strategies to align across geography and issue. Non-discriminatory platforms reduce the power of gatekeepers, and increase the power of those historically excluded. That’s why I fight to protect the Internet, not simply because of what it is, but because of what it enables.”
All of this would go away without Net Neutrality. And in 2014, it appeared the big ISPs were going to get their way. These companies had convinced FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a former top lobbyist for the cable and wireless industries, to propose rules that would allow for Internet fast and slow lanes. It took a massive organizing effort to change Chairman Wheeler’s mind. And the voices of communities of color were critical to this effort.
The debate over Net Neutrality occurred at a pivotal moment. A new generation of racial justice activists representing the community’s growing political and moral consciousness demanded that the FCC protect the open Internet. Many civil rights groups and lawmakers of color joined this effort and made their voices heard.
And over the past five years, the Center for Media Justice, ColorOfChange.org, Free Press and the National Hispanic Media Coalition have worked as part of a coalition — now called Voices for Internet Freedom — to fight for the digital rights of communities of color. Groups like 18MillionRising and Presente.org have also been critical partners in advancing this goal.
The coalition ensured that the new generation of racial justice leaders would have their voices heard during the open Internet debate. “It is because of Net Neutrality rules that the Internet is the only communication channel left where Black voices can speak and be heard, produce and consume, on our own terms,” Patrisse Cullors, co-creator of Black Lives Matter, wrote last December in The Hill.
For years, the big phone and cable companies have relied on lawmakers of color and several legacy civil rights groups to oppose any efforts that would ban ISPs from discriminating online. These companies claimed that Net Neutrality would broaden the digital divide. But this new group of leaders challenged that narrative.
In January 2015, a Center for Media Justice-led delegation of Black racial justice leaders met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the FCC to discuss why Net Neutrality is essential to the fight against police brutality. The delegation included activists from Ferguson and Opal Tometi, a co-creator of Black Lives Matter.
During a meeting with Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon pledged his continued support for Net Neutrality. He validated that the group stood on the right side of history when he said the civil rights movement would have accomplished even more had an open Internet existed in the 1960s.
A few weeks later, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Presente.org, in partnership with the Center for Media Justice, brought a delegation of Black, Latino, Asian American and Native American activists to meet with key lawmakers of color and take part in a standing-room-only briefing with congressional staffers on Net Neutrality and racial justice.
By the time the FCC was gearing up for its vote, more than 100 racial justice and civil rights groups had signed a letter calling on the agency to adopt strong and enforceable Net Neutrality rules. This collective effort not only inspired members of Congress to speak out, but it kept many lawmakers of color who were otherwise inclined to support the positions of the big phone and cable companies from opposing Net Neutrality — despite the financial contributions they receive from the industry.
By the time the FCC was set to vote, a broad coalition of public interest and racial justice groups had galvanized millions of people — not to mention President Barack Obama — to call on the FCC to pass rules that would give the agency the legal authority to enforce real Net Neutrality. And by February 2015, Chairman Wheeler had abandoned his initial industry-friendly proposal in favor of the strongest Net Neutrality rules in the agency’s history.
“We listened. We learned. And we adjusted our approach based on the public record,” said Wheeler. “In the process we saw a graphic example of why open and unfettered communications are essential to freedom of expression in the 21st century.”
In Our Lifetime?
While we should celebrate this victory, the fight isn’t over. The ISPs will never stop trying to kill the open Internet. In fact, they’re suing the FCC to get the rules thrown out in court and lobbying to pass legislation in Congress to overturn the FCC’s decision.
The struggle continues. It always does.
But for now, the open Internet lives. And it enables racial justice leaders to speak for themselves and be heard. The ability to speak freely can be a revolutionary act that informs, inspires and influences a new generation of leaders to fight to prevent history from repeating itself in the effort to build a more just and equitable society.
Perhaps this growing political pressure will increase the presence and influence of people of color in the media industry. And perhaps it will change the media’s historical narrative when it comes to covering communities of color.
“If the Internet stays a place where you can share your voice without impediments or limits then the discourse will eventually change,” says Julio Ricardo Varela, founder of Latino Rebels. “It might not change in our lifetime, it might not change in my kids’ lifetime or my grandkids’ lifetime, but it will change.”
Joseph Torres writes frequently on media and Internet issues and is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. Joseph also serves on the board of directors of the Center for Media Justice and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. Before joining Free Press, he worked as deputy director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and was a journalist for several years. He earned a degree in communications from the College of Staten Island. Follow him on Twitter @JosephATorres.