When it comes to media and telecom issues, Rep. G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldHouse Democrats push to introduce John Lewis voting rights bill within weeks Black Caucus presses Democratic leaders to expedite action on voting rights Democratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack MORE (D-N.C.) is one of the most important voices in Congress.
Elected in 2004, Butterfield represents North Carolina’s 1st congressional district, which includes Durham, Greenville and Wilson. Earlier this year, he became the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. And he’s also a member of the House communications and technology subcommittee that oversees the Federal Communications Commission.
This makes Butterfield one of the most powerful lawmakers in Congress, and one of the nation’s most influential Black politicians when it comes to the debate over Net Neutrality and the future of the open Internet.
Yet instead of protecting the online rights of Internet users, including people of color, Butterfield has used his powerful position to advocate for big broadband companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.
In February, the FCC adopted strong and enforceable Net Neutrality rules that prevent broadband providers from discriminating unreasonably online. The rules preserve our right to free expression online, barring broadband providers from creating a fast lane for the rich and a slow lane for the rest of us.
The 4 million people who urged the FCC to adopt these real open Internet protections hailed the decision as a historic victory. Among those praising the rules were President Obama, more than 100 racial justice and civil rights groups, and leaders of the Congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses, including Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraOvernight Health Care — FDA panel backs boosters for some, but not all Biden administration announces federal support for patients, abortion providers in Texas Biden administration releases B in COVID-19 relief for providers MORE (D-Calif.) , Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.).
But Butterfield didn’t applaud the FCC for shielding us from the predatory business practices of AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. Instead, he said Congress needs to take the lead, claiming that “special interests” — rather than millions of people, thousands of businesses and a return to sound law and policy — were responsible for the FCC’s move. By opposing the FCC’s decision, Butterfield broke ranks with all of the leaders listed above and sided with the Republican-led Congress working to overturn the Commission’s rules.
The big phone and cable companies are orchestrating the effort to overturn the FCC’s decision. They don’t want to be treated as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act because they know that Title II gives the FCC the legal authority to enforce its rules. But contrary to Butterfield’s talking points, common carriage is not just for “utilities” — and it’s not a radical shift in the principles the FCC is upholding. Rather, it’s just the legal framework for the rules.
Pressing forward with their usual misinformation campaign, the companies trying to kill Net Neutrality have found a willing partner in Butterfield.
Butterfield’s opposition to Net Neutrality is nothing new. In the course of his congressional career, AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and the NCTA have been among his biggest donors.
Butterfield was one of 74 Democrats who signed a 2010 letter denouncing any FCC attempts to treat ISPs as common carriers. He signed a similar letter in 2014 as the Commission began considering new open Internet rules. But this time around, fewer than 20 Democrats signed the letter thanks to the public pressure for real Net Neutrality.
Like many of those trying to undermine the FCC’s rules, Butterfield now claims that he supports an open Internet but thinks the FCC went too far and Congress needs to intervene.
But as far back as 2006, Butterfield voted against an amendment that would have established Net Neutrality legislatively. So why is he pro-congressional action now? Simple: He’s doing the bidding of the broadband providers seeking a congressional measure that’s weaker than the existing law and current FCC rules.
In addition, Butterfield voted for retroactive immunity for the telecoms when they helped the National Security Agency target communities of color, and has supported other telecom-backed surveillance legislation, such as the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). He also led the short list of Democrats who endorsed the failed AT&T/T-Mobile merger, a deal that the Justice Department and the FCC moved to block due to concerns about its impact on consumers.
In other words, at critical junctures in the struggle for racial justice, Butterfield has protected the big broadband companies instead of people of color.
And he fails to acknowledge how significant the open Internet has been for communities of color. Groups like ColorOfChange.org, Presente.org and 18MillionRising have harnessed the Internet to win real-world change for communities that historically did not have seats at the policymaking table. Latino and Black activists and artists have used the open Internet to fight for just immigration policies and protest the police killings of unarmed Black men, women and children.
But killing Net Neutrality would deprive racial justice movements of the digital oxygen they need to tell their stories and challenge the mainstream media’s stereotypes.
As Black Lives Matter co-creator Patrisse Cullors wrote: “It is because of net neutrality rules that the Internet is the only communication channel left where Black voices can speak and be heard, produce and consume, on our own terms.”
This is why the number of racial justice and civil rights groups supporting the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules — including Black Lives Matter, the Dream Defenders and United We Dream — continues to grow. And it’s why a dozen Congressional Black Caucus members support the FCC’s rules.
“Every voice matters,” said Rep. Lewis, “and we cannot let the interests of profit silence the voices of those pursuing human dignity.”
The Rev. William Barber II, the influential leader of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, urged “people of faith and people not of faith” to tell the federal government and Congress to support the FCC’s open Internet protections.
“The Web is a place where all Americans have an equal voice regardless of color, regardless of economic status or beliefs, and we need to keep it that way,” Barber said. “An open Internet is vital for our organizing efforts in social justice.”
Unfortunately Butterfield has rejected Barber’s sermon. Instead he’s reciting the gospel according to AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, who will stop at nothing to destroy the open Internet.
Collins is the media justice director for ColorOfChange.org, the nation’s largest civil rights organization. Torres is the senior external affairs director for Free Press, a public interest media and telecom group. Torres is also the coauthor of News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media.