In recent weeks, citizen reporting on the Internet illuminated the situation in Ferguson, Missouri in real time, unfiltered by media institutions or their parent companies.

The Internet has transformed how everyday people – especially those historically underrepresented in media – can communicate with each other and the world. Voices, ideas, and ventures from underrepresented groups flourish online, due to net neutrality and the way it democratizes the flow of information.

This feels like the norm now – but we shouldn't take it for granted. The FCC may soon allow the phone and cable companies to end net neutrality. If this happens, the Internet will be transformed into something much less open, diverse, and powerful.

Net neutrality has always defined how the Internet works. Internet users and content providers pay to send and receive data at certain speeds – but in between, no one can interfere with how that information travels. Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner are already charging consumers for Internet access – but now they want to also get in between consumers and Internet content, prioritizing information from some sources based on who can pay the most.

Ending net neutrality would turn the Internet into something more like cable TV. Smaller voices, companies, and organizations would be locked out and unable to compete. Ordinary citizens would be less able to document what is happening in their communities, spread information, and engage in activism together – as many now are in Ferguson.

President Obama made a campaign promise to protect net neutrality. But his pick to chair the FCC, Tom Wheeler, is pushing a proposal that would destroy net neutrality while claiming to protect it. Wheeler is a former top lobbyist for the cable and telecom industry, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he might work in the interests of his former employers.

What comes as a greater shock is that ten black members of Congress, and some of the country’s best known civil rights organizations (including the NAACP and Urban League), are undermining net neutrality. They pay lip service to net neutrality, but are attacking the only approach the FCC could use to truly protect it: reclassifying Internet service as a public utility. At the same time, they have taken large donations from the telecom industry.

In recent years, these groups and members of Congress have advanced a false narrative about net neutrality and people of color. Protecting net neutrality, they say, would hurt efforts to expand Internet access in underserved communities and close the digital divide. They claim that unless we allow the big Internet providers to increase their already huge profits – by allowing them to discriminate for profit online – they won’t be able to invest in expanding access.

This argument is a form of trickle down economics – it says that if we give more to big corporations, it will somehow benefit citizens and consumers. There is no reason to believe that if the telecom companies make more money, they will suddenly invest in better connections for communities of color. In fact, history has shown that they don’t.

In reality, there is no conflict between net neutrality and expanding Internet access. In fact, reclassifying Internet service as a public utility would help the FCC in its efforts to close the digital divide. Even if it were true that ending net neutrality could expand Internet access – which it isn’t – the tradeoff would not be worth it.

The idea that less regulation and oversight of big corporations will benefit underserved communities is false and dangerous. There is a long history of discriminatory and predatory practices in many industries, and a lack of strong regulation to protect consumers is what allows these abuses go unchecked.

In this case, the stakes are very high. Allowing big telecom companies to end net neutrality would severely damage the ability of black people and other disadvantaged communities to organize for justice and equality.

Civil rights organizations should consider how far the voices of citizens from Ferguson might have carried in a pay to play system. If Internet service providers were currently allowed to prioritize traffic based on commercial relationships, what impact could it have had on the spread of information about the militarized police presence in Ferguson? Verizon has had business relationships with defense contractors and the Department of Defense. What would Verizon’s relationships with prison contractors do to online campaigns against prison privatization?

It is very possible that such relationships could impact – whether subtly or obviously – the flow of information about these industries on Verizon’s networks. 

If the telecom industry succeeds in compromising the Internet in this way, it will be a sad day for activism and civil rights. Everyone who cares about civil rights should fight to protect our ability to communicate and organize on a free and open Internet.

Robinson is executive director of, the nation’s largest online civil rights organization. Follow on Twitter.