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Beyond Net Neutrality: Grassroots Voices Tell Tom Wheeler What’s Up

Activists lined up recently to tell new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler how telecom policies affect their lives.

As the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Tom Wheeler was facing a lot of challenging issues when he sat before 200 people in a packed hall in Oakland, California. Wheeler didn’t know it yet, but a few days later, a federal appeals court would side with Verizon and strike down the FCC’s net-neutrality rules that had prevented internet service providers from discriminating against or downright blocking content on the internet and charging internet content providers premium rates for faster delivery speeds. Opponents say neutrality stifles innovation, but open networks advocates argue that, without neutrality rules, the internet eventually will resemble cable television, with the Googles and Facebooks of the world paying premium fees for “fast lane” access to consumers while leaving small websites and start-ups in the dust.
Wheeler also didn’t know that the ruling would affirm the FCC’s power to set policies that potentially could save net neutrality and impact the internet for years to come, leaving the former industry lobbyist and venture capitalist in a position of considerable political power. Observers have been hanging on Wheeler’s every word regarding net neutrality in recent weeks, but on a Thursday in Oakland, the flash-point issue was just one of many on the minds of the activists and advocates who lined up to tell Wheeler how telecommunications policies typically discussed in conference rooms in Washington affect their everyday lives.
A disabled activist told Wheeler that the FCC “has the power to determine wether disabled Americans will have the access they need to learn, earn and thrive.” Bob Butler, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, reminded Wheeler that rampant media consolidation allowed under the FCC’s watch has helped keep the percentage of television newsrooms under black management as low as 12 percent in recent years. Wheeler took notes as Karen Gonzales, the mother of a 20-year-old man in prison, came to tears explaining that she expects to pay more than $20,800 just to speak to her son during the next 16 years of his sentence. The FCC recently capped prison phone rates to prevent the gouging of prisoners and their families, but prices are still high, and many state jails and immigrant detention centers are exempt, so activists say there is still much Wheeler can do to keep families connected.
On January 9, 2014, Wheeler made a rare appearance at a town hall meeting in Oakland organized by various civil rights and media reform groups. Dozens of activists and advocates working on the front lines to “close the digital divide” had a chance to tell Wheeler how the FCC can stand up for consumers, especially those struggling economically, in the face of massive telecom companies that resist regulation at every turn. For Wheeler, a self-described “typical Washington player,” it was a chance to come face to face with the real-world impacts of the telecommunications policies he will be working on at the FCC.
In general, the town hall speakers were asking Wheeler to remember that low-income and under-represented consumers have the right to access networks, so the FCC must stand up to telecom giants such as AT&T and Verizon that want nothing more than to gut regulations and leave consumer protections at the whim of market conditions.
Organizers said Oakland, where initial coverage of the 2009 police killing of Oscar Grant highlighted racial inequities in mainstream news coverage, was the perfect venue to confront the real-world impacts of telecom policy. Consider the impacts of one issue Wheeler will surely wade into during his five-year tenure: media consolidation. People of color make up two-thirds of the Bay Area population, but they control just 10 percent of the region’s commercial radio and television stations, according to the Center for Media Justice, which sponsored the event.

Nationally, people of color own just 3 percent of full-power television stations and 8 percent of radio stations despite making up about 40 percent of the total population. This inequality, activists told Wheeler, leads to the misrepresentation of minority communities and has left people of color without a voice in the dominant media. As Oakland Youth Poet Laureate Obasi Davis pointed out to Wheeler and the audience, “On the news/ Only two black men exist/ The athlete and the criminal/ Not always separated.” (Obasi read from his poem, “The skin the sun gave me.”)

Wheeler’s FCC must soon preside over major spectrum auctions, and media reformers are hoping the new chairman will do his best to preserve competition among major telecomm companies to protect consumers. At the town hall, activists asked Wheeler to crack down on television firms that have used “Lifeline program that provides free phone service to low-income folks and to ensure that everyone stays connected to phone lines as the network transitions from analog to digital under his watch.

Wheeler’s FCC also will oversee the expansion of broadband, and advocates pushed him to see the expansion as an opportunity to fight inequality. “Affordable, universal and open broadband internet access is integral to achieving equality in the United States,” said Jessica Gonzalez, executive vice president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “This is particularly important for people of color, who have not only faced media misrepresentation and discrimination from economic opportunities but also lag behind in broadband adoption.”

Nearly 26 percent of Latino Americans, for example, live in poverty, compared with 15.9 percent of all Americans, but greater access to broadband could help change that, according to the NHMC. Only 53 percent of all Latinos have broadband at home, and many rely on their mobile phones as their sole means to the access the internet. Meanwhile, more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies, including huge employers such as Wal-Mart, accept job applications only online. In the next decade, 80 percent of jobs will require some digital literacy skills.

Richard Abisla, technology manager at the Mission Economic Development Agency in San Francisco, knows first-hand how internet access can change lives. The agency’s colorful office in the heart of the city’s Mission district hosts a small business incubator and classrooms with rows of computers where clients, mostly low-income Latino residents, can build basic computer skills, learn how to manage finances and navigate the internet. Working in partnership with the Department of Education, Abisla’s nonprofit is working toward the ambitious goal of ensuring that every family with children that attend school in the Mission has a computer and internet access at home.

“You don’t want your kid doing homework on this thing,” Abisla told Truthout has he grabbed an iPhone from his pocket. That, however, is the case for many children in the neighborhood. Abisla said that internet access equals economic opportunity, and when local economies grow, it’s good for everyone in the neighborhood. “Ultimately, I would want technology access to be woven into all federal poverty alleviation programs,” he said. “After that, I would want federal regulation to keep prices down.”

That’s exactly what Abisla told Wheeler at the town hall. He said the typical family that visits his agency has two children and $28,000 of annual income, making the cost of internet service – about $25 to $70 a month – prohibitively expensive for those who need it most to start climbing up the economic ladder.

Wheeler sat quietly through the testimony, jotting down notes and names. When it was his turn to speak, Wheeler trod with the care of a fresh bureaucrat who has yet to decide exactly how he will tackle the issues piling up on his desk. Wheeler reminded the audience of the progress the FCC has made already, including scrapping a proposal to ease cross-ownership restrictions that prevent rampant consolidation. He declared his support for the Lifeline program and applauded the interim Chair Mignon Clyburn for capping prison phone rates despite legal challenges from prison phone companies. But Wheeler also reminded the audience that the FCC is not the all-powerful regulatory agency that many progressive wish it could be. “I want to sit here and say it’s all solved, but I can’t do that. And you wouldn’t believe me if I did,” Wheeler said.

Despite the looming court decision on net neutrality, Wheeler did not address the issue by name, although it was certainly on everyone’s mind. Voices for internet Freedom, a coalition of the groups that organized the town hall, issued a statement this week reminding consumers and the FCC that the open internet rules struck down this week stand for the kind democratic values that advocates in Oakland promote:

In a digital age, Open internet rules protect dissenting voices. Communities of color, and other groups pushed to the margins of debate, have a long history of creating their own media to express dissent in the struggle for rights and opportunity. Without an Open internet, these constituencies are denied a vital platform to express opinions and shape debates on critical issues that affect their lives.

Wheeler did, however, give his audience a hint at how he may approach net neutrality in an age where activists say that big internet service providers would jump at the chance to manipulate the workings of the web in order to maximize profit and crush dissent. “I will turn around to these companies and say, if you want incentives to grow these networks, then your have to uphold the compact,” Wheeler said. “Why is anyone going to subscribe to your service if there is … preferential treatment for someone else?”

The appeals court struck down the FCC’s net neutrality rules because the FCC had failed to designate broadband service as a “common carrier” provider like landline telephone service. The court did, however, uphold the FCC’s ability to make “rules governing broadband providers’ treatment of internet traffic. After the ruling, Wheeler said that the FCC would consider all options, including appeal, to ensure that the internet remains a free and open platform. But it would be tough for Wheeler to win in court, and veteran GOP commissioners are weary of the legal battles over net neutrality and want Congress to act instead. It remains unclear whether Wheeler would push to reclassify broadband and reinstate net neutrality rules or, as he suggested in Oakland, go after individual internet service providers if they start making anticompetitive moves that hurt consumers. But Wheeler is now three months into his term as chairman. His true policy aims must soon crystalize, and the grassroots voices of Oakland are hoping to be heard when they do.

Sign this petition to the FCC, Congress, and the White House now: Keep the internet open. Keep net neutrality. Don’t allow censorship and discrimination when it comes to internet access.