You folks have probably heard a lot about “Net Neutrality” lately, but you may not be clear on what it is, how it’ll change your Internet life, or what you can do to keep it in place. And to be honest, I’m not qualified to speak about it.
But my friend Paul is.
Paul Goodman (@PaulOverbite) is Senior Legal Counsel on the Telecommunications and Technology Team at The Greenlining Institute – which is to say he’s been on the front lines battling the telecommunications industries for years, and he knows exactly what companies like AT&T would do if people like him weren’t there to stop him. (Some of the things he’s told me about have been horrifying.)
So I’m gonna ask him to explain Net Neutrality to you through a phenomenal historical metaphor, and have him tell you why all isn’t lost yet even though yesterday’s headlines were indeed bad.
Ferrett was kind enough to offer me the opportunity to write a blog post about the importance of net neutrality—the principle that your internet service provider (ISP) can’t control what content you access or devices you use on your broadband connection. As you may have read, on Thursday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) initiated the process of eliminating the current net neutrality rules. Unfortunately, there was a fair amount of misreporting on the issue, leading to headlines like “Net Neutrality Rules Eliminated” and “FCC Kills Net Neutrality” and “Masked Man Throws Net Neutrality into Vat of Acid, Creating Green-Haired, White-Skinned Madman.”
However, net neutrality isn’t dead yet—but today’s vote was a clear sign that it’s in the Trump administration’s crosshairs.
To really understand the importance of net neutrality, you first need to understand Green Books. Green Books, common in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, were travel guides for African American travelers. These books listed locations where food and lodging were available to African Americans, and, more importantly, listed places where African Americans would be refused service, falsely arrested, or murdered. The Green Books listed huge swaths of the country where there were no services available and where, accordingly, African Americans couldn’t go.
Think about that for a minute. Specifically, consider the enormous amount of power that white people had over black peoples’ lives. If you were black, white people could stop you from travelling to, or through, large parts of the country. So if you were more than a day’s drive away from friendly territory, you couldn’t visit your family. If you were a travelling salesman, there were large parts of your sales territory that you couldn’t visit. If you wanted to go to your state capitol to ask your elected representative for help, you might not be able to—not because you didn’t have the ability or resources, but because white people actively worked to keep you from doing so.
One group of people had control of a vital part of our nation’s infrastructure, and used that control to prevent African Americans from accessing economic, social, and political opportunities.*
Today, we’re facing the same scenario. A small group of broadband providers controls a vital part of our nation’s infrastructure — the national (and international) telecommunications network. That control gives ISPs an enormous amount of power. The Internet is the way that we communicate with our friends and loved ones, find jobs, contact government services, and get information. Net neutrality protections ensure that you, not your ISP, decide how to access the network, what content you view, who you communicate with, and which viewpoints you can express and support.
Under the current net neutrality rules, your broadband provider can’t discriminate against particular Internet content. For example, Comcast owns NBC-Universal. Comcast would prefer that you watch NBC shows, rather than shows from other content providers like HBO, or ABC, or Netflix. Comcast is also an ISP, and has the ability to deliver Internet traffic at different speeds and service quality, so Comcast could deliver NBC content in high-definition, while making videos from HBO look terrible. Net neutrality rules make sure that doesn’t happen.
In 2015, the FCC, which regulates what I call “communications services” and you call “telephone, cable TV, and broadband service,” imposed the most robust net neutrality protections in U.S. history. If you haven’t noticed, since then, we’ve had a few changes in our government. Under new leadership the FCC wants to roll back all of the robust net neutrality protections we’ve come to rely on. In anticipation, ISPs and conservative groups have been sending out a deluge of misinformation and dropping off huge sacks of money at policymakers’ offices.
There’s only one group that can really push back, and that group is us.
I know we’ve all got a lot on our plates lately, and we’re all battling on multiple fronts, but I would really like you to understand that the fight to save net neutrality is critical. Many marginalized groups—people of color, LGBT folks, Muslims, to name just a few—don’t have access to traditional outlets for getting their voices heard. The Internet is often the only tool that we have to communicate, give and receive support, and organize. Without a free and open Internet, we will lose our ability to make our voices heard, share our positions and strategies, and work for real change. We cannot let that happen.
The FCC is currently taking comments on its plan to eliminate net neutrality, so please go here and tell the FCC to keep the existing net neutrality protections in place. Additionally, please reach out to your elected representatives and ask them to keep the Internet open and free—a five-minute phone call might just convince your rep to vote against the repeal.
* – Incidentally, that discrimination continues today in our telecommunications networks. Years of business decisions by telecommunications providers about where to build or upgrade their networks have resulted in a disparate impact on communities of color—on the whole, communities of color disproportionately lack access to broadband services, and where those services are available, they are unaffordable and the service quality is terrible.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.