Can Net Neutrality Ensure Social Justice for All?

Global network(Image: Global network via Shutterstock)“Social justice” is a broad and often divisive term, but most people have at least an abstract idea of what it means, and arguably most of us recognize social injustice when we see it. It is probably safe to say that most people believe worldwide social justice is desirable. However, ensuring social justice for all citizens seems improbable, particularly as the gap between the very rich and the less fortunate members of society continues to widen worldwide. Given that the world’s richest 85 people possess the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion combined, the prospect of ever achieving global social justice seems daunting.

Numerous obstacles stand in the way of ensuring social justice for all, and the widely lamented death of net neutrality is one of those obstacles.

What’s Net Neutrality Got to Do With It?

When many people think of social justice they think in terms of tackling basic survival issues such as food and water scarcity, inadequate health care, and housing shortages. Others focus on egregious human rights violations such as trafficking, or torture of political prisoners. Gender and racial inequality, and lack of access to education and jobs are additional social justice issues that dominate the conversation. In recent years, however, issues related to internet accessibility – particularly net neutrality – have also become part of the dialogue about social justice.

There may still be some people who think it odd to include internet accessibility in the context of issues that are essential to survival and a subsistence standard of living. However, because the internet has become such an integral part of life, it is no longer unusual to associate it with survival. Not only is the internet a viable means of mobilizing for social change, but internet equity has been recognized as a social justice matter for several years. It is in fact part of a larger issue concerning control of public media, as discussed in an op-ed piece by Scott Sanders and James Owens back in 2010.

Although Sanders’ and Owens’ editorial pointed out that news and other content is increasingly market driven, which may not bode well for the internet as an agent of social change, the net remains a viable tool for this purpose.

Is net neutrality dead (and if so, what does that mean for social justice)?

The net neutrality issue has gained traction recently. On April 23, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it would propose new rules allowing companies such as Disney, Google or Netflix to pay internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon for special, faster lanes to send video and other content to their customers. This has resulted in widespread protests that the FCC is capitulating to those big players and is working toward gutting the 2010 Open Internet rules that essentially guaranteed all users equal access to legal content. Not surprisingly, the FCC, whose previous efforts to maintain net neutrality were struck down in January 2014 by a Federal appeals court, says the protests are without merit.

Though access to high-speed internet may not be the top social justice concern, it is nonetheless an issue that affects billions of people’s quality of life. Information is power, so access to reliable information is crucial. In addition, internet access is increasingly linked to education and job prospects, as well as to growing and maintaining businesses.

In any case, many people say that while it may be on life support, net neutrality isn’t dead yet. There’s a burgeoning movement to stop the efforts to destroy net neutrality. Growing numbers of individuals and groups recognize net neutrality as the social justice issue it is; one example is LOVE (Latinos Organizing Virtually for Equality (LOVE). As reported by the Nonprofit Times, net neutrality was the topic of a March 2014 panel discussion at South By Southwest. The panel featured Andrew Rasiej, cofounder of Personal Democracy Media, and Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press. Both expressed optimism about the power of the public to drive change and to fight for net neutrality. Said Aaron, “There’s huge potential for net neutrality among young people and activists fighting mass surveillance. A major army can be organized.”

The internet is only a tool. For it to be a tool that can help ensure social justice for all citizens, it is essential that users be concerned enough to fight the powerful corporate interests striving to give more to those who already have more than enough.