Civil Rights Movement knocks on the door of the FCC

In the decades-long struggle for civil rights, the movement has focused on different Washington institutions, from Congress to the White House to the Supreme Court.  This summer, part of the battle moved to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). 

The critical question now facing the FCC is how to preserve the open Internet while continuing to expand opportunity and bring the transformative benefits of broadband technology to all Americans, including communities of color.   

{mosads}Today, there are no binding rules requiring the broadband industry to keep the Internet open and free, thus making it critical for the FCC to act quickly.  Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should not be able to block, degrade or slow down access to any website or service, or otherwise create “fast lane” sweetheart deals that favor a few at the expense of most. 

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has laid out goals to help ensure that the internet remains free, open and responsibly managed, and that it remains a platform for economic growth, innovation, entrepreneurship, and broadband investment and deployment.  These goals, plus the use of the FCC’s existing powers – its “section 706” authority – to enact effective, enforceable Open Internet rules, represent the smartest way to expand digital access and opportunity to ensure that all Americans have equal and unimpeded access to all services – the acid test of civil rights online – and to encourage the necessary social and economic inclusion to keep America competitive in this century.

This approach to the Internet, first chartered with bipartisan support during the Clinton Administration, has created 945,000 jobs for workers of color in the broadband sector and an overall “app economy” that supports another 750,000 jobs a year.

We favor using the FCC’s established and court-blessed powers.  However, others argue for another approach that would reclassify the entire Internet as a “public utility” and subject it to regulations created for utility telephone companies 80 years ago.  Not even the Internet companies like Google, Apple and Facebook are calling for an approach this extreme at this point; in its statement to the FCC, the Internet Association (the tech giants’ trade group) is noticeably reticent on the public-utility approach.  Rather, this effort is led by immodest activists, with fists and fingers raised (and fundraising emails queued) – who have also been deafeningly silent regarding civil rights and diversity issues and efforts to create more inclusion in employment, economic and business opportunities.  

We are supportive of an approach and framework that work to achieve these goals, and based on the myriad questions that still exist, we believe that further analysis of what a more heavily-regulated reclassification would indeed mean is first necessary.

First, by most accounts, utility-style regulations would deter the investment we need to continue building faster, farther-reaching networks to bring full digital citizenship to all.  This isn’t theory; we have tangible examples of the utility model’s inability to spur investment and innovation.  In Europe, the utility model has halved investment in high-speed Internet networks ($565 per household in the U.S. compared to $244 per household in Europe).  More than four out of five U.S. households now have access to high-speed networks capable of 25 megabits per second; only half of European households do. 

The evidence shows the utility approach has not helped to bridge the digital divide.  In often-poor rural areas, 48 percent of American households now have access to these high-speed networks (a number we still need to improve), while only 12 percent of rural Europeans do.  Overall, America has the most affordable basic service in the developed Western world and the third most affordable in the world. 

The digital divide is still too large in this country – but we will not close it by adopting obsolete utility rules that have never previously equalized service or economic opportunity for communities of color.  Instead, we need the Internet to keep growing, getting faster and reaching more Americans.  

The public utility approach could also demote the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in its vital role overseeing consumer protections on the Internet (as the FTC doesn’t cover utilities).  Further, most legal experts believe that its shaky legal ground would mean years of endless litigation and uncertainty.

This issue is bigger than the ordinary give and take of party politics, campaign machinations, and legislation.  It’s the next great chapter in our unceasing struggle for full citizenship – offline and on.  All communities deserve a vibrant, growing, and open Internet – and we must ensure that we take the right approach today. 

Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans.


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