Civil Rights 2.0: NAACP Should Officially Reverse Position On Net Neutrality
Author’s note: This piece has been written for thefreshxpress.com which is actively examining the NAACP in light of its annual convention this week.
Net neutrality is a civil and human rights issue which impacts everyone. Yet what has lacked worthy attention is how the matter uniquely impacts people and communities of color beyond the traditional idealism of being able to access information online.
Most of us are familiar with the condition known as “the digital divide.” We think of it in terms of access to technology- something the NAACP has historically worked to combat. Yes, access to hardware for poor people is always going to be a challenge. But the digital divide is no longer (just) about whether computers, their accessories and software are affordable for people to obtain.
Now the digital divide has grown to include the internet- and not just the ability to get online. What many of us do not consider is the internet is probably one of the last frontiers in terms of creating, establishing, and maintaining control over one’s identity.
As people of color we know beyond a shadow of a doubt the way we are portrayed in the media is more about stereotypes than truth. It’s not just news media but entertainment media as well. Those in control of the images and information we consume don’t care to accurately portray people of color, or see the importance in empowering said people to help paint the fuller picture- also something the NAACP has historically battled against.
The internet on the other hand, is different. Look no further than the FXP and its vast networks of Black writers sharing perspectives, opinions and truths the consumer couldn’t get anywhere else.
Ask yourself how you would feel if your internet service provider decided it didn’t like the FXP, The Sable Verity, or some other site, and prevented you from being able to access that information.
Now take the power to prevent you from accessing information and apply that to anything and everything important (or even trivial) you’ve ever seen on the internet:
The Oscar Grant shooting video.
Video of members of our own military killing civilians oversees in zealous fashion.
Voter registration information.
Access to family planning clinics.
This is already happening. Internet service providers have denied users access to information or content they found objectionable, like information on family planning services, or controversial comments made by a music group about former President Bush; content that may be objectionable for personal reasons but by no means is illegal (like child porn).
ISP’s can also discourage its users from accessing information by making the process difficult- like reducing download efficiencies for large amounts of data. Efforts by these companies to block or otherwise reduce your ability to access all information equally, is a quintessential example of discrimination in today’s society.
What has become clear from these incidents is this: the probability for denying consumers information- and the power to generate information- is very real, and very dangerous. As a result, the internet has the potential to become another wasteland of inaccurate, limited information and narrow perspectives about people of color- we could lose the power to self-define- something we have fought for since the movement began.
The FCC is in the process of determining whether to officially regulate broadband as a telecommunications method. Doing so would strengthen and indeed restore the ability to access and generate information unfettered by big business. To that end, there is no question regulation is in order. Internet providers are against it.
The NAACP has put itself on the wrong side of keeping the internet open and free to people of color. It’s a position they should immediately and publicly reverse.
The main argument put forth by these groups is that net neutrality rules could limit minority access to the Internet and widen the digital divide. They say that unless we allow Internet service providers to make bigger profits by acting as gatekeepers online, they won’t expand Internet access in under-served communities. In other words, if Comcast — whose broadband Internet business was recently earning 80 percent profit margins — can increase its profits under a system without net neutrality, then it will all of a sudden invest in expanding Internet access in our communities.
Expanding access to high speed Internet is an extremely important goal, and we are fully in support of it. But allowing the phone and cable companies to make more money by acting as toll-takers on the Internet has nothing to do with reaching that goal. Businesses invest where they can maximize their profits, period. Internet service providers are already making huge profits, and if they believed that investing in low-income communities made good business sense, they would already be doing it.
Access to broadband -or redlining access to information- does impact the digital divide, no question. But its expansion- or lack thereof- has nothing to do with whether or not the Federal Communications Commission regulates the internet in order to keep it open and free; to make sure all information (particularly information we create) is equal.
The idea ISPs will invest more in communities of color if allowed to reduce or deny access to information is a falsehood. It is also a talking point created by those ISP companies against regulation- the same companies who donate millions of dollars to the NAACP and other civil rights organizations which, coincidentally, have taken the side of big business and come out against net neutrality and regulation.
For its part, the NAACP has said its position has been misinterpreted; they are neither for nor against net neutrality. Many higher-ups have said their focus is on broadband expansion and access. But this is not a case of whether to address access to broadband or access to information and the power to create content- it is both at the same time.
The NAACP’s attempt to clarify its position on FCC regulation is actually nothing more than an effort to straddle the fence rather than aggressively advocating for what is right.
It is also an issue that exposes the ongoing division within the organization itself; many local and state chapters of the NAACP openly and actively advocate for net neutrality on their own- while the national office does nothing.
The organization’s position doesn’t just complicate the already convoluted political and grassroots efforts to keep the internet open and free to everyone. To maintain a non-position on the issue is tantamount to misleading the thousands of members the NAACP claims to work in the best interests of. Certainly many members understand these kinds of issues through the organization, thus the people are being mis-educated and mis-led.
The NAACP should openly and loudly reverse its position on net neutrality and federal regulation; there is no greater opportunity to protect and advance the people- or the struggle for progress- than the information super-highway.