Your Take: Let's Ensure Web for All

In a response to criticism of his group's position on net neutrality, the author argues that, rather than worrying about whether all websites can be accessed at the same speed, our No. 1 priority should be making sure that everyone can access the Internet in the first place.

David Sutphen

In his recent piece for The Root, "Why We Need Net Neutrality," James Rucker, founder of ColorOfChange, offers his take on why everyone who happens to disagree with him on the issue of net neutrality has suspect motives and is working against the interests of African Americans.

As co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance; as someone who spent time working for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and as someone who handled civil rights issues for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, I have a different view on what it means to work for or against the "interests of African Americans." With that in mind, I'd like to offer another perspective on net neutrality.

Although a lot has been written about net neutrality over the past several years, much of it rhetorically colorful, very little has gone beyond catchy sound bites and slogans. Phrases like "free and open Internet" and "corporate gatekeepers" and "front groups" make interesting copy, but they often mask complex issues and fail to foster a thoughtful dialogue about what is truly at stake for all Americans, but particularly African Americans.

As a student of the civil rights struggle and a beneficiary of its successes, I believe firmly in the notion that progress comes through setting priorities and understanding when principled compromise is necessary. Perhaps it's on this basis that I differ most and part ways with Rucker.

Simply put, for me -- and I suspect many of the others who disagree with Rucker -- priority No. 1 for our community must be 100 percent broadband access and adoption (whereas net neutrality is an issue over which principled compromise is appropriate).

We live in a society in which broadband has become an increasingly critical life tool. Whether it's civic engagement or access to jobs, education and health care, those who lack a broadband connection are at a distinct disadvantage, which will only continue to grow. If you're an African American who is unemployed -- as a historically high percentage of us are today -- just try finding a job if you don't have an Internet connection.

Even if you are employed, IIA showed in a recent report that failure to have an Internet connection can cost you more than $7,000 in lost income from missing out on exclusive deals and discounts available only to those online. Given these realities, it's tragic that more than 40 percent of African Americans don't have a home broadband connection, not because they lack access -- 95 percent of households have access, according to the Federal Communications Commission -- but because of our collective failure to demonstrate the concrete value, opportunities and benefits that come from being online.

In the face of this reality, noticeably absent from Rucker's piece is any discussion of what ColorOfChange is doing to close the digital divide and make 100 percent access and adoption its top priority  -- a fact that is even more surprising when you consider that being part of his movement to "organize, speak for ourselves and dismantle political barriers" requires being online, and it is the most disenfranchised among us who remain on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Is Rucker's failure to agree with me, the NAACP, the National Urban League, Congressional Black Caucus members, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and former Rep. Harold Ford -- that 100 percent access and adoption should be priority No. 1 -- a reason to question his commitment to the cause or the community? Does it mean he's "working against the interest of African Americans"? Of course not! It's simply an example of an honest and legitimate disagreement on priorities, not principles or bona fides.

Shifting gears to the issue of net neutrality itself -- defined by Rucker as "deliver[y of] every piece of content with the same speed and priority, regardless of who puts it on the Net" -- it's important to set the record straight on a key point, which often conveniently gets glossed over, perhaps because it makes the slogans and sound bites less compelling.