Here’s a summary of the issues surrounding the future of the Internet and how that impacts Black Americans
WASHINGTON – The future of the Internet is a hot topic these days, and the key term concerning its future is “net neutrality.”Simply put, it’s the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data on the Internet the same, regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites. That means that companies like AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications, Verizon, and others from which consumers buy Internet access can’t and won’t block such access based on how the Internet is used politically, socially, or any other way.
Many people believe that the net neutrality concept is responsible for making the Internet an open source for worldwide information. There’s controversy, however, as to whether the Internet should be regulated and if so, how.
The issue has heated up, partially as a consequence of a racial “digital divide” that continues to persist.
According to Pew Research information, “African-Americans have long been less likely than Whites to use the Internet and to have high-speed broadband access at home, and that continues to be the case.”
Pew concludes that Black Americans trail Whites by seven percentage points when it comes to overall Internet use (80 percent vs. 87 percent for Whites). Seventy-four percent of Whites and 62 percent of Blacks have some sort of broadband connection at home. Home Internet access impacts kids’ availability to do homework online as well as an adult’s ability to complete job applications.
At the same time, “Blacks and Whites are on more equal footing when it comes to other types of access, especially on mobile platforms,” according to Pew.
For the past year, policymakers from the White House to Congress have been debating four approaches to giving the concept of net neutrality the force of law:
(1) Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ensure that broadband service is available to “all Americans;”
(2) Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, which would reclassify broadband as a public utility;
(3) no regulation; or
(4) a hybrid approach that would classify Internet ISPs as public utilities, but maintain their services under Section 706.
Civil rights and a host of labor organizations that include the Multicultural Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC), an advocacy group with decades of experience in complex FCC issues; the National Urban League; the NAACP; Rainbow/PUSH; and others have urged the FCC to take the hybrid approach.
“Section 706 offers the best opportunity for innovation, investment, and universal broadband adoption,” according to MMTC. “This approach provides oversight in a manner that would encourage investment, job creation, deployment, and adoption of broadband.”
MMTC and the civil rights organizations say that the goal should be regulations that will provide consumer protections and an open Internet, while not killing broadband deployment and jobs.
“MMTC wants Internet neutrality, but more than that, we want Internet equality,” the organization wrote in a joint letter to the FCC with the other groups.
MMTC asked the FCC to facilitate “full and complete high-quality broadband deployment to communities of color” without “[r]edlining and exclusion of any sort[.]” The organizations also urged the FCC to adopt a “strong focus … to ensure that all minority businesses, entrepreneurs, and workers are given meaningful opportunities to participate in the build out of high-speed networks and the innovation of the Internet economy.”
MMTC also advocates adding “consumer-friendly protections” to regulations that would allow consumers to file complaints and receive a response from the FCC.
MMTC’s approach runs contrary to what’s called the “netroots community,” including bloggers and online activist organizations like Color of Change.org. They want strong regulations and for the FCC to treat ISPs like utility companies.
“Net neutrality is important to low-income communities, and in particular communities of color,” according to James Rucker, co-founder of Color of Change.org.
“Over the course of history, each new medium to arrive has had the potential to enable everyday people to push back on power, to produce and distribute authentic messages coming from our communities, undisturbed by a corporate filter. And each has repeatedly been killed.
“For each medium – radio, television, and print – there was the promise of people-controlled media. Yet through media consolidation and barriers-to-entry created by larger corporations to prevent new players from entering, the promise was undone.
“The Internet, thus far, has escaped the fate of these other media, largely because of net neutrality, which has governed the way content on the Internet is managed. Changing this is in the financial interest of the biggest ISPs (like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon), but it offers no benefit to consumers.”
Rucker and others stay that without strong regulation, ISPs will establish “slow lanes for content and application providers without a lot of money, and fast lanes for those with deep pockets who can afford to pay.”
On Nov. 10, President Obama surprised observers by advocating for stronger regulations.
“‘Net neutrality’ has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation – but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted. We cannot allow Internet service providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas,” Obama said, calling for the FCC “to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.”
Citing what he called “bright line rules,” Obama said new regulations should include the following:
• No blocking. “If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player…gets a fair shot at your business.”
• No throttling. ISPs should not be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others through a process often called “throttling.”
• Increased transparency. The FCC should make full use of the transparency rules that prevent special treatment.
• No paid prioritization. No Internet service user should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee.
Obama asked for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.
Obama’s proposal pleases Democrats, public interest groups, netroots groups and Internet companies such as Amazon.com.
Internet service providers such as AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications, and Verizon are dead-set against it. Most Republicans oppose the approach, arguing that heavy-handed government oversight could squelch investment in expanded broadband networks.
FCC will move
Two weeks ago, FCC Chairman Thomas E. Wheeler, who was appointed by Obama, strongly hinted he planned to propose to enforce net neutrality restrictions by subjecting ISPs to utility-like regulation.
Wheeler plans to release his proposal on Feb. 5 in preparation for a commission vote three weeks later.
Last week, two leading congressional Republicans unveiled legislation to protect net neutrality by prohibiting Internet service providers from charging companies for faster delivery of their content. Most notably, the draft legislation would not subject Internet service providers to utility-like regulation.
“By turning the FCC away from a heavy-handed and messy approach to regulating the Internet, this draft protects both consumers who rely on Internet services and innovators who create jobs,” said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D.
Thune took over the powerful chairmanship this month when Republicans gained control of the Senate. He is teaming on the bill with Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Those committees oversee the FCC.
Republicans have resisted net neutrality legislation in the past, arguing it was a solution in search of a problem because there was no evidence Internet service providers were discriminating against content on their networks.
But congressional Republicans are concerned the FCC is planning to take aggressive steps to enact new net neutrality regulations. Thune and Upton want to short-circuit that process by moving forward with legislation that would supersede FCC action.
“By clearly outlining the appropriate rules of the road and leaving 20th-century utility regulation behind, we can be sure that innovators continue full throttle in bringing remarkable new technologies to all Americans,” Upton said.
Reversed by courts
A key reason net neutrality advocates have pushed for the tougher approach is because federal courts twice have thrown out FCC rules, arguing the agency did not have authority to enact the regulations under another provision of the telecommunication law. The new legislation would specifically grant the FCC that authority.
Thune and Upton said the legislation would avoid long court battles and they hope to get bipartisan support. They labeled the bill a draft, which implies they are open to changes. Both committees will hold hearings on the bill next week.
But it’s unclear how many Democrats would back it. And any bill would have to be signed by Obama.
Jim Puzzanghera of the Los Angeles Times / TNS contributed to this report.