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Net Neutrality and Broadband Access: A Civil Rights Issue

"Every man is our brother

“Every man is our brother, and every man’s burden is our own. Where poverty exists, all are poorer. Where hate flourishes, all are corrupted. Where injustice reigns, all are unequal.”
Whitney Moore Young Jr.

Is net neutrality just a matter of the marketplace, or is it also a matter of ethics – a civil rights issue? And if the latter, how should broadband optimally serve the nation?

It’s a question the Digital Divide Institute (DDI) asks on its website, where it addresses what it calls the five domains of innovation – public policy, finance, technology, management and ethics – the cornerstones of DDI’s Meaningful Broadband initiative.

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Based in Asia, DDI has a firm grasp of what the digital divide is and is not. And contrary to popular belief, DDI says that the digital divide “does not refer to the gap in access to digital technology.” Instead, DDI asserts that the term really refers to the “gap between those who benefit by the digital economy and those who do not.”

This pressing concern is acknowledged worldwide, defining what’s become known as the digital divide and prompting Nelson Mandela at the Telecom 95 event to say, “The capacity to communicate will almost certainly be a key human right,” and add that, “eliminating the distinction between the information-rich and information-poor is also critical to eliminating economic and other inequalities.”

Yet at a time when net neutrality is being hotly debated nationwide, some are concerned that Mandela’s words have fallen on deaf ears. Douglas Bialach, an information technology professional and disability activist who’s worked for various Fortune 500 companies in the course of his career, says “Our access to information assures our very rights as citizens.” Expanding on that concept, Bialach offers an allegory of his view that net neutrality is such a critical issue: “Let us compare the internet to a [public] library. With net neutrality, we would see all types in the library, with free access to the same information at the same rate as the next person … whether that person is in a high-end dinner jacket or clothed by the Salvation Army’s closet … they both have the right and ability to be informed.”

Bialach, who moderates the We Are You Too blog, recently penned a post entitled “Learning and Working with Disability in the Digital Age.” He believes broadband access is a fundamental right that should be afforded to all, and says that the “handicapped” should be especially concerned because, “Unfortunately, most of the handicapped population is also unemployed.” This, he says, compounds inherent challenges that the disabled face, as “it is essential that we be able to communicate with those who could potentially use our talent.” He adds that “without net neutrality, communication will be tiered, and the unemployed, handicapped workforce will find themselves in the slowest of the slow lanes, with every facet of introductory communication bottlenecked, leaving those of us who are capable of competing in the job market in deficit.”

Broadband access and net neutrality may seem like new topics. However, like Mandela, other leaders spoke with foresight long before now. In a 1998 speech at MIT, former president Bill Clinton said:

The dimensions of the Information Revolution and its limitless possibilities are widely accepted and generally understood, even by lay people. But to make the most of it, we must also acknowledge that there are challenges, and we must make important choices. We can extend opportunity to all Americans or leave many behind. We can erase lines of inequity or etch them indelibly. We can accelerate the most powerful engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known, or allow the engine to stall. History has taught us that choices cannot be deferred; they are made by action or inaction. If we are to fulfill the complete promise of this new age, we must do more.

These were sentiments spoken more than a decade ago, but where does Congress stand now, and how is our current president weighing in?

Earlier this month, after a September proposal by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-California) failed to gain enough legislative support, in a Washington Post article entitled “It’s put-up or shut-up time for the FCC’s net-neutrality advocates,” Rob Pegoraro wrote, “Letting providers charge some sites for access to the passing lane or push the data of others off to the slow lane is not how the Internet was designed to operate, or how Internet service has traditionally been provided. The issue here is simple: Should the government prevent Internet providers from discriminating for or against legitimate sites, services and applications?”

Tim Karr, who blogs at the Coalition – which promotes itself as a network of “two million everyday people who have banded together with thousands of nonprofit organizations, businesses and bloggers to protect Internet freedom” – says that if the FCC seizes the opportunity to affirm net neutrality, it will have the “added benefit of giving clearance for the agency to proceed on plans to bridge the nation’s digital divide and invite more consumer choice into a broadband marketplace dominated by too few players.”

So, the question is not whether solutions exist, or even to speculate whether there is a need for equal access assurances. Ultimately, the long lingering questions boil down to whether or not those given authority and power to act, will.

Glen Ford, editor of, who has an informed, impassioned view on broadband access and net neutrality, took the time to respond to some questions in this arena:

Max Eternity (ME): Why is net neutrality so important? What’s at stake?

Glen Ford (GF): Certainly, net neutrality is vital to, which could not exist – as neither could its predecessor, – outside the low-cost environment provided by net neutrality. The same applies to the whole array of left-leaning information and advocacy sites that make up the “alternative” electronic media in the U.S.

Internet-based media have become indispensable to maintaining a Left “presence” in the national political conversation. The technology came along just in time. Print [hard copy] mass communication had become prohibitively expensive, especially in terms of distribution, and by the mid-eighties news had virtually ceased to exist on Black radio.

Youth of all classes and ethnicities have become totally socialized to an Internet environment. If corporations are allowed to consolidate and rig the Net-based communications sector – as would occur without the free and speedy access protections of net neutrality – progressive politics would effectively disappear from the radar of much of American youth. Without youth, there can be no effective social movement – no counterweight to the power of capital.

It is also true that some of the Left confuses its “presence” on the Internet with actual organizing on the ground. But that’s a different subject, which would be made moot if the Internet was corporatized through the loss of neutrality.

ME: Should African-Americans be especially concerned about this issue … and if so, why?

GF: African-Americans should be concerned for the same reasons as everyone else, and more. Independent Black print media were decimated by the cosmetic “integration” of white corporate media, which, by hiring Black faces, voices and writers, created the illusion that Black-controlled news was passe, superfluous, unnecessary. For a time, news flourished on Black-oriented commercial radio, but was soon driven to extinction by corporate owners of both races. The last islands of Black independent news, analysis and commentary survive on the Internet. Emerge, the last commercial Black political print periodical, went out of business in the mid-nineties and has not been replaced in any medium.

News media play a central role in selecting and incubating political leadership. I maintain that the disappearance of independent Black news media is a huge factor in the failure of Black independent politics over the past three decades. Corporations now choose our “leaders” – including, of course, the first Black president.

ME: Speaking of which, how do you see President Obama dealing with net neutrality, and how do you compare that with what you think he could be doing?

GF: President Obama shows no signs of fulfilling his promises on net neutrality. His position is that it’s up to Congress to protect the Internet from corporatization, yet he lifts not one finger to cause that to happen. The recent court decision curtailed the FCC’s powers to enforce neutrality unless it declares the Internet to be a “common carrier,” but his chairman, Julius Genachowski, has so far refused to act on the challenge, doubtless taking his cue from the White House. Genachowski, it turns out, was one of the authors of the 1996 Communications Act, which ushered in the current era of corporate consolidation of broadcasting. Genachowski has stated, “We’re not going to regulate the Internet,” although he fudges by saying the FCC does have the power to do precisely that.

ME: You write in a recent commentary, ” … it is clear that much of the networking done by members of Congressional Black Caucus is contrary to the interests of their own constituents.” Could you cite an example of this, a specific scenario?

GF: On one important level, just take a look at the CBC’s Legislative Weekend schedule of activities. This past year, it was full of “networking” events promoting individual monetary and professional self-gain, reflecting the CBC’s vision of Black progress. On the programmatic level, the CBC Foundation’s main function is to solicit money from corporations, which are then allowed to shape the program of the Foundation, the CBC’s action arm.

By 2005, the CBC had ceased to function as a coherent, progressive legislative force – the “conscience of the Congress” – due to the paralyzing effect of corporate influence on a critical mass of members. Given its failure to confront corporate power legislatively and its collaboration with big business through its foundation, I think my statement is a fair assessment.

ME: Nelson Mandela said, “Eliminating the distinction between the information-rich and information-poor is also critical to eliminating economic and other inequalities.” If you share a similar view, what would you say to further articulate Mandela’s point?

GF: I would go further: The capitalist rulers are seeking to impose the same dictatorship over human communications as they exercise in the economic realm. When the people cannot communicate with one another except under the rulers’ terms, they are helpless to overthrow their oppressors.

ME: Is digital access a civil/human rights issue?

GF: Yes, it is politically useful to make that claim, which has the same weight as the right to other forms of literacy – that is, effective access to information vital to human welfare and happiness. But the truth is, it’s all about power. We must defeat the corporate monster, or he will destroy us all. The digital sector is one theater of struggle.

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