The FCC must enforce standards that keep the web free and open
© Greg Nash

The internet is fundamental to economic opportunity, social action and innovation in the modern age. It has the power to democratize information, it allows us to communicate instantly and effectively, and in recent years, it has facilitated innovation and been the catalyst for social justice movements. That’s why the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) supports a free and open internet.

Net neutrality has been a hot button issue since the early 2000s. The issue has long been debated whether all information online should be treated equally and with the same speed regardless of a business’s size, content, application, platform or website. In 2015, the Obama administration enacted net neutrality rules to codify strong guidelines designed to ensure equal access for all users. The issue of net neutrality has recently resurfaced because Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai has begun a process to roll back the safeguards put in place by the Obama administration, and effectively, to exempt high-speed, broadband internet service from the prohibition against unreasonable discrimination in Title II of the Communications Act.

Under the current regulatory structure, high-speed, broadband internet is classified as a telecoms service which requires Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to treat internet traffic equally, as they should. Reclassifying high-speed, broadband internet as an “information service” would arguably allow the very discrimination that is prohibited by Title II, thus preventing the realization of a free and open internet for all. As 10 members of Congress wrote in a letter to the FCC on Friday, August 4, this goes against the original congressional intent behind the Telecommunications Act, which was to ensure “consumers are the ones who choose what content they access online—not the government and not big corporations.”

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Now, you may be wondering why the NAACP is weighing in on net neutrality. Throughout our 108 year history, the NAACP has always opposed discrimination and has fought for justice and equal opportunity for all. We see the fight for net neutrality as an extension of that mission. In fact, during our 108th annual convention in Baltimore last week, our board of directors and members unanimously passed a resolution firmly stating our position on net neutrality.

 

The internet has provided African-Americans and other marginalized communities with the ability to compete for a wide array of opportunities that might have been out of reach before; from applying for jobs that they might otherwise never have heard about, to taking advantage of the sharing economy, to promoting our own ventures. If net neutrality is eroded, it could become more difficult for small business owners to compete on a level playing field with larger, more profitable companies, and it would be easier for ISPs to justify delaying the rollout of high-speed internet service to low-income communities and communities of color. The effect would be the denial of crucial economic opportunities to African-American communities across the nation. If we allow money and profit margins to dictate how people are able to gather and disseminate information on the internet, those lacking the means to afford high speeds will be left in the dust. The result will be an even greater knowledge gap – and ultimately, a greater wealth gap – between the haves and have-nots.

If net neutrality was compromised, ISP gatekeepers would be able to remove or otherwise modify information that we obtain across the internet. Imagine if you wanted to stream music or television shows over the internet, you had to pay a premium or face frustratingly slow internet speeds. Or if you searched for the video footage that captured the dreadful moments in the brutal killings of unarmed black men only to find that it is blocked from view. These are two, very real possibilities that could manifest if we don’t maintain net neutrality.

With the fate of net neutrality on the line, the NAACP urges Chairman Pai to respect the congressional intent behind Title II of the Telecommunications Act, to protect the free flow of information and not jeopardize it by removing high-speed broadband from the equalizing framework of Title II. ISPs should not be able to discriminate against any information, or against any groups of people, based on their profit margins or their whims. Information is power and no one should be allowed to strip that power away—and definitely not on our watch. 

Derrick Johnson is interim president and CEO of the NAACP and founder of One Voice Inc. He is also an adjunct professor at Tougaloo College.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.