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Don't Let the Corporations Steal Our Voice

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By James Rucker, NNPA Guest Commentary –

Throughout the Black struggle for justice and equality, few things have meant more than the ability to speak out and to speak forcefully.

Whether it was David Walker’s Appeal for action against the horrors of slavery published in 1829, the cause of Cinque and the Amistad slave ship revolt in 1841, the words of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the oratory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or the fiery rhetoric of Malcolm X—the power to speak, to challenge, to rally, to defend, and to define have been crucial for us as a people.

Today, the battle to have our voices heard isn’t about access to a newspaper, a TV show or a radio program. Through the “open” Internet, modern technology has opened the door for Black America to speak truth to power in direct and unfiltered ways. We can speak loudly enough on the Internet that our points of view make their way into traditional media outlets – our participation in the marketplace of ideas can’t be ignored. That’s what I mean by an “open Internet”: our voices can compete on a level playing field with the biggest corporations, and we don’t need a lot of money to do it. This is the reason the Internet is so diverse, and it’s why thousands of Black blogs, online businesses, and news sites have flourished in recent years.

But our newfound voice is now in jeopardy.

In an effort to make even more money, corporations that provide highspeed Internet service (such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon) are trying to fundamentally change the way the Internet works by acting as gatekeepers over what you see or do online. The fight is over “net neutrality,” a principle that has guided the Internet since it began, and which means that Internet service providers can’t decide which websites load fast, slow, or not at all. Sounds simple and logical right? After all, why would you want At&T to be able to block, filter, or slow down what you or anyone else puts online? Well, these corporations see it differently.

They are fighting the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the right to create a new system where they can charge large fees to speed up some websites, while leaving those who can’t afford to pay in the slow lane. For these companies, the ability to discriminate online would amount to billions of dollars of new revenue. But such a system would end the Internet as we know it — giving wealthier voices online a much bigger megaphone than poorer voices. It would mean an Internet with far less potential for our communities.

Sadly, these corporations have enlisted trusted civil rights groups like the NAACP, National Urban League, and others — groups to whom they’ve donated millions of dollars — to oppose or question net neutrality policies. These groups argue that net neutrality could limit minority access to the Internet. They say that unless we allow Internet service providers to make bigger profits by acting as gatekeepers online, they won’t make high-speed Internet access more affordable in underserved communities. In other words, if Comcast — whose broadband Internet business is already 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.

The argument is bogus, and the FCC knows it. 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. The idea that making even more money is suddenly going to make them care about our communities is ridiculous.

Expanding high-speed Internet access in poor and minority communities is an important goal and we must fight to make sure it becomes a reality. But there are no reliable data or plausible arguments that suggest preserving net neutrality is at odds with this goal. Still, civil rights groups are creating the false impression that our communities stand firmly against net neutrality policies, giving cover to the broadband providers, and making it difficult for the FCC to protect the open Internet against corporate attempts to control it.

Network neutrality is a civil rights issue for the 21st century, and like the last great civil rights generation, we have a choice to make. We can stand up to the corporations that want to control the means by which we organize and speak truth to power, or we can allow the Internet to go the way of television, radio, and print media — where we have virtually no control over the production and distribution of ideas, and where our voices are ghettoized and limited. I’m hoping that we make the former choice, and I appeal to you to join me in making it a reality. You can help by writing the Federal Communications Commission and telling them that you support net neutrality, or by visiting our website at www.colorofchange.org/opennet.

James Rucker is co-founder of ColorOfChange.org, an online citizens' lobby, and he serves as its executive director.

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