[Opinion] Who Speaks for Whom on Net Neutrality?

Is net neutrality a battle for black folks?

(Image: iStock/theasis)

When a populist revolt gets underway, it is tempting to praise activists who stand up for the “little guy” and make sure the “voice of the people” is heard in the corridors of power. Just don’t forget to step away from the frenzy to ask who is being defended and why.

(Image: iStock/theasis)

 

Comedian John Oliver recently encouraged his viewers to flood the Federal Communications Commission with comments opposing imminent changes to “net neutrality” rules. Actually, he did more than encourage them. He whipped them up. Dubbing his call to arms “Go FCC Yourself,” he cast the rules change as the empowerment of a handful of big companies to decide what we can see on our screens and a mortal threat to our freedom. Not surprisingly, millions of comments were filed—or so it seemed.

More shocking was the tone of many of the comments. Many filers decided making ethnic slurs and threatening comments to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, an Indian-American—a man of color—and his family, which includes young children, would be more effective than laying out informed views on what the new rules would mean for accessing websites and other content over the internet. Ironically, too many of these crusaders for the free flow of information will do whatever is needed—even justifying the use of hateful slurs—to muzzle those who oppose them.

One of the groups that strongly opposes the rules change is Color of Change, a source of my stories for many years as the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. Color of Change pushes corporations and government to create “a more human and less hostile world for black people in America.” The group’s executive director, Rashad Robinson, said what the FCC has planned will “devastate black communities” and vowed to fight.

Normally, I would agree 100% with Color of Change as they’ve been a reliable source of information and a black press ally in the struggle for many years. But, on this issue—largely due to this season in which other racial issues appear more pressing—I’ve stepped back to take a closer look.

There are strong arguments on both sides on how FCC plans will impact African American communities. I agree that this is an issue that must be dealt with. But, my question is, in a year in which, as black people, we face devastating issues on every hand, at what cost should we fight this one?

  • While the median income for an African American household is still $35,000—only 66% of the national average of $53,000—should we be focused on net neutrality as a priority?
  • As African Americans are rejected for mortgages at more than twice the rate of whites, is that issue worth sacrificing to debate net neutrality rules?
  • How about the homicide and police misconduct rates in black communities—yet another issue related to economic disparities. Does net neutrality rank over these?

Color of Change has a history of weighing in on internet policy issues. For example, when Congressional Black Caucus members opposed new regulations on the internet that would stifle investment, Color of Change organized a petition that said, “Your actions threaten both the black voice … and the moral authority of the Congressional Black Caucus as an advocate for black America.”

I respect passionate advocacy to fight racism, and I’ve actually given my entire career to this mission. But Color of Change’s approach on the net neutrality issue leaves much to scrutinize.

It is not easy to fully understand the pace and complexity of change in the digital world and telecommunications. But I do know that companies’ positions are based on a string of calculations related to business models, the availability of broadband connections, pricing differences from one market to another, programming preferences, and other issues.

Absolutely, there must be attention to how decisions based on these issues affect disadvantaged communities, including African Americans. But when we fight a racial issue, our motives must be based on racial justice; not on the ideological views of major contributors.

For example, Color of Change’s parent organization, Citizen Engagement Laboratory, has received at least $400,000 in funding from George Soros’s Open Society Institute. The financier and liberal activist and affiliated organizations, such as Public Knowledge, believe that government is the preferred arbiter of the flow of internet content. While Soros and others are entitled to feel strongly about internet rules, connecting the FCC’s position with racial injustice is a significant leap. In other words, why can’t African American consumers conclude that the change might help internet service providers innovate and provide even better service?

Let me be clear. I am not saying it’s not an important issue to our community. It’s just the method of advocacy by Color of Change on this issue that gave me pause. It seems the organization should provide all the technical and legal information they can to back up their position. I simply disagree in the draping of the issue in racial justice and presuming to speak for all African Americans when some of our communities have literally burned to the ground because of more critical issues that have not been funded.


 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily represent the views of Black Enterprise.