Co-written by Collette Watson
Net Neutrality is a critical racial-justice issue. It’s enabled communities of color to use the open internet without having their voices censored or silenced.
But a federal court ruling last month threatens the internet’s future as well as the digital rights of communities of color.
On October 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s 2017 repeal of its Net Neutrality rules. Broadband companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon are now free to discriminate online by blocking websites or prioritizing some content over others.
The court’s decision is a setback that simply compounds what work remains in our fight for a free and open internet. Net Neutrality has enabled racial-justice leaders like Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors to speak out and organize for justice online. In a 2014 op-ed for The Hill, she wrote about how “activists can turn to the internet to bypass the discrimination of mainstream cable, broadcast and print outlets” and use “the only communication channel left where Black voices can speak and be heard, produce and consume, on our own terms.”
In 2017, actress and comedian Amanda Seales joined hundreds of protesters at a rally organized by Voices for Internet Freedom outside the FCC the day it voted to repeal Net Neutrality. She shared, “As a Black woman in this country, the internet has allowed me to have my own story, and no longer be at the whim and behest of gatekeepers who have no interest in what I have to say and in what my life is representing.”
For nearly a decade, the Voices for Internet Freedom coalition has fought to ensure that voices of communities of color are heard. Led by 18 Million Rising, Color Of Change, MediaJustice, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Free Press — the organization we work for — the Voices coalition played a critical role in pushing the FCC to adopt strong and enforceable Net Neutrality rules in 2015.
The 2015 rules prevented broadband providers from blocking, slowing down or prioritizing certain websites and online content. And they ensured the Commission had the legal authority to enforce these protections. While the judges on the D.C. Circuit expressed uncertainty about whether the Trump FCC made the right call in repealing these rules, it deferred to the “expert” agency’s right to make that choice.
Erin Shields, the national field organizer for MediaJustice, said that the court ruling affirmed “his repeal was done sloppily, without oversight or accountability, and was not in the interest of internet users — especially those living on low incomes.”
Cayden Mak, the executive director of 18 Million Rising, called the decision a “slap in the face for Asian Americans and communities of color who have fought for our civil rights for generations.”
“The current fight over Net Neutrality,” they added, “is the latest battle in an old war over whose voices can be heard.”
There’s one silver lining: The court rejected the FCC’s claims that states can’t adopt their own Net Neutrality rules.
Since 2017, nine states, including California and New York, have adopted Net Neutrality rules either through executive orders or legislation. Additional states are now likely to take action.
In addition, Congress will come under greater pressure to pass legislation. Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, noted that “consumers in this country, particularly Latinx consumers, are still left unprotected and the time for action by lawmakers is now.”
Earlier this year, the U.S. House passed the Save the Internet Act, which codifies the Obama-era Net Neutrality rules. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, has said the House legislation is dead on arrival.
But there’s hope the Senate could move on this issue since Net Neutrality enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support.
Last March, a poll found that 87% of Democrats and 77% of Republicans support Net Neutrality. A 2018 poll was even more specific, finding that more than 90% of Democratic and 82% of Republican voters support the Net Neutrality rules the Obama administration put in place.
Despite the strong bipartisan support for those 2015 rules, a “working group” led by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D–Arizona) and Roger Wicker (R–Mississippi) has proposed so-called compromise legislation. This approach is nothing more than a bargain struck to satisfy the phone and cable corporations that shell out millions to get lawmakers to do their bidding.
Net Neutrality is a partisan issue only inside the Beltway, and the Save the Internet Act is the only congressional bill that would fully restore the 2015 rules. Compromise bills are transparent attempts to funnel cable-industry talking points into the rule of law, undermining the rights of internet users everywhere — especially people of color speaking truth to power in ways that the phone and cable companies no doubt see benefit in silencing.
Meanwhile, there are already signs that Net Neutrality will become a central presidential-election issue.
Democratic candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris all support restoring strong and enforceable Net Neutrality rules. And if a Democrat is elected, the next FCC can vote to restore the 2015 protections.
Regardless of which political party is in office, the struggle to reinstate strong Net Neutrality protections won’t be easy. The broadband companies are among the nation’s most powerful corporations.
But as civil-rights icon Rep. John Lewis warned while speaking out for real Net Neutrality in 2015, “we cannot let the interests of profit silence the voices of those pursuing human dignity.”
Joseph Torres is the senior director for strategy and engagement for Free Press, where Collette Watson is the creative communications director.