Center for Media Justice home of the Media Action Grassroots Network

Civil Rights, Self-Representation, and the Fight for Open and Neutral Online Networks

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Two weeks ago, the Center for Media Justice brought together a coalition of national media groups working on racial justice issues including the Media Action Grassroots Network, Color of Change, the Media Democracy Coalition, Presente.org, Unity Journalists of Color, the National Hispanic Journalists Association, Center of Community Change, and with tremendous support from Joe Torres of Free Press, to meet with DC beltway civil rights groups One Economy, the Urban League, and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) –all members of the Broadband Opportunity Coalition– to discuss the issue of open and neutral online networks and the network neutrality rules being considered by Congress right now.

News stories and blogs were saying that the civil rights community opposed network neutrality, which I found hard to believe.  But there the telecom companies were, touting these open letters to Congress and the FCC from civil rights groups claiming that network neutrality was just a set of  “burdensome regulations” that would distract from the “real issue” of closing the digital divide.  Telecom companies threatened to disinvest in poor communities if they were held to any regulatory standards.  There were the 72 members of the Democratic Party who signed on to these letters.  Members of the media reform community shot back that the civil rights groups were bought out by big media.  It was, as my cousins would call it, a hot mess.  Since the whole point of network neutrality rules is to ensure open communication and self-representation with no corporate gatekeepers, I decided it was time to stop listening to the Telcos’ version and initiate face-to-face communication between the beltway and national civil rights communities. In the meetings, our coalition was delighted to discover that the beltway civil rights groups were NOT opposed network neutrality, and that they were as surprised and disturbed as we were to find that their position had been so incorrectly portrayed.  The leaders we met with appeared inspired to hear that there were hundreds of local and national civil rights groups in adamant support of strong network neutrality rules, and asked us to hold them to their highest standard and represent the communities they serve.

In each meeting, the representatives we spoke to said they never intended to portray the issue as one they were against, and one shared that it was absurd for anyone in the civil rights community to oppose network neutrality.  They also made it clear that in the wake of a conservative agenda to shrink government and decrease public investment in our communities, there is a long history of investment by Telecommunications companies in national civil rights groups and in communities of color.  So when companies like Verizon or ATT frame an issue, they are trusted and believed.

Now, that made sense to me.  In a society marked by media systems that maintain and echo the interests of the dominant group, it’s sound business and political strategy for telecommunications companies to invest in subordinated communities.  While communities of color have always had a dog in the media reform fight, there are competing interests and real challenges to corporate investment in our communities. Think on that for a good long while.  In the meantime, I mean, has democracy been working well for you recently?  Feel like you have a real say in the policy debates on universal health care, climate change, comprehensive immigration reform, public education, or juvenile and criminal justice?  Is your community adequately and fairly represented on broadcast and print news? Big companies making easy for you to share and sell your independent art and music? If you’re poor, a person of color, a woman, a member of the queer community, a progressive, a journalist, an independent artist, or simply not one of the few large telecommunications companies lobbying Congress to limit or eliminate network neutrality rules- your answer is probably, and emphatically NO.

As articulated in CMJ’s new one pager on network neutrality and racial justice, open and neutral online networks are a partial antidote to the exclusion and misrepresentation these communities face in traditional media.  The fight to secure open and neutral online networks is a fight for self-representation.  It’s a racial and economic justice fight. It’s a strategy for economic independence. With open and neutral online networks, communities pushed furthest to the margins by traditional media have a chance to speak powerfully for themselves.  Finally.  So it makes no sense that anyone from these communities would oppose making network neutrality principles law.  These principles are the reason the Internet has become such a serious force for communication, connection, and change for us all in the last two decades.  When you strip away all the technological mumbo jumbo, all network neutrality is, are a set of rules that forbid Internet service providers (ISPs) to block, discriminate against, or deter Internet users from accessing online content and applications of their choice—such as e-newsletters, blogs, social networking sites, online videos, podcasts and smart-phone apps.  It’s strange that anyone who wants their community to have the right to represent themselves online would advocate for anything but the strongest possible protections.

Still, telecommunications companies like Verizon, ATT, and others claimed that open and neutral networks would threaten digital inclusion, decrease their ability to invest in communities of color and poor communities, and violate their right to manage their networks as they saw fit.  They said the civil rights community and the Democratic Party agreed with that.  Conspiracy plot? I think not.

It is the rational outcome of big business to attempt to make as much money as possible.  The mega-merger between NBC and Comcast is an example of that.  If these telecom giants can control the online video market, as well as cable, we’re talking BIG MONEY and serious threats to free speech and representation.  Comcast already makes an 80% profit.  “It’s not that network owners are secretly plotting to stifle free speech. But they have an undeniable, rational interest in creating a pay-for-play model for the treatment of communication on the Internet. Commercial Web sites that pay will get speed and quality, and the noncommercial uses of the Net [like skype, public access media, your favorite movie site] will be collateral damage—relegated to the slow lane. It’s not necessarily that they want to block our speech for political reasons. It’s that our speech is not important to them because it’s not going to make them money.” It’s a proven fact that ISP’s CAN manage complicated networks with different and competing technological needs without discriminating or blocking content- but they might not make as much money.  It is a historical fact that if they can make big profits from a discriminatory pay-for-play model- they might do it, and we’d be faced with the same media problems we see in broadcast and print.  Can anyone say Fox News? Radio Payola? Cable?  That’s why we need the strongest rules possible.

Network neutrality rules threaten big media profits, because they put people and the public interest over corporate interests.  It’s that simple. Thank goodness our national civil rights community didn’t fall for the okey doke. Unfortunately, the media framed the fight as one with white media reform groups who don’t understand communities of color on one side, and civil rights organizations who don’t understand media policy on the other.  See… this is why we need communication without corporate gatekeepers, because, as per usual, they got the story wrong.

The meetings showed me that the civil rights community understands and wants open networks.  The groups we met with were happy to meet, inspired by the connection, and committed to being clear that they did NOT oppose network neutrality.  We should support them as they clarify their position.  We all have real questions about “reasonable network management” and the legal definition for “non-discrimination” online, and we deserve real answers.  Media reform groups whose purpose is to protect the public interest have real expertise on these issues, and they should provide answers to those questions in the clearest way possible. What’s true is that the media reform community needs to build deep alliances with the civil rights and racial justice community that is not only short-term and tactical but long-term and strategic.  It will take trusted national partners in the field like the Center for Media Justice, the Applied Research Center, the Praxis Project, the Center for Rural Strategies, Native Public Media, the Media Democracy Coalition, and others to build a powerful media justice agenda and practices in policy advocacy that support bridge building.  Through these initial meetings with the civil rights community, we built new alliances, expanded the base of people who care about and engage with media policy change, and forged a new vision together for what that change should look like.

I learned that in order to protect democracy, transform racism, and represent ourselves in the media- national progressive civil rights organizations have a significant role to play in media policy change because they have the scale to make significant change, while media reform groups have incisive expertise on the policy issues.  Civil rights groups and media reform groups need to move a media policy agenda for racial and economic justice TOGETHER, as defined fundamentally by regional grassroots organizations like the member organizations of the Media Action Grassroots Network– who represent and work most closely with those pushed furthest to the margins.  That’s my two cents.  What do you think?

About the Author

Malkia A. Cyril is co-founder and Executive Director of the Center for Media Justice (CMJ). For more than 20 years, Malkia has organized social justice coalitions, resources, and advocacy for media rights, access, and representation across the United States. You can follow Malkia on Twitter @CultureJedi

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