Your Take: Why We Need Net Neutrality

Too many black politicians and front organizations funded by telecommunications companies are working against the interests of African Americans, says the co-founder of ColorOfChange.

James Rucker

The Internet is the most democratic communications network ever created. In a world where our community cannot count on the mainstream media to tell our stories -- or on mainstream politicians to advocate for our needs -- the Internet has allowed us to organize, speak for ourselves and dismantle political barriers.

The Internet did not become such a powerful force by accident -- it's because the Internet has worked from day one according to a key principle called net neutrality, which dictates that the companies who manage the flow of content on the Internet deliver every piece of content with the same speed and priority, regardless of who puts it on the Net.

Your own personal website or blog can compete on an equal footing with the biggest companies. It's an open playing field that has made it possible for social and business entrepreneurs to thrive -- free from the corporate gatekeepers that have dominated traditional media like cable television, broadcast radio and widely available print publications.

So what does any of this have to do with black people and political empowerment? In short, everything. Today we have a president who credits his ability to break through historic barriers to the open nature of the Internet. In the last several years, a healthy ecosystem of black voices has begun to emerge online -- black bloggers and columnists who, to a large degree, had no effective forum from which to speak in authentic voices and shape public debate. Through, more than 800,000 people are connected to opportunities for political change.

By definition, the work that we do at ColorOfChange goes against the status quo and attempts to disrupt entrenched power. Take our successful campaign to prevent the Congressional Black Caucus Institute from partnering with Fox News, our effort to force the story of the Jena 6 to be told (with everyday people providing $300,000 for their legal defense), or our campaign that has stripped Fox News' Glenn Beck of more than 100 of his major advertisers.

Efforts like ColorOfChange would be impossible if we had to rely on traditional media because of the nature of our message or because of the prohibitively high costs of entry, but the open Internet allows us to make our voices heard and to form community.

Net neutrality is the key to the power of the Internet, but it's under attack. Comcast, AT&T and Verizon -- the most powerful broadband providers -- are trying to undo how the Internet works in order to increase their profits. These companies want to create a tiered Internet where only those with the deepest pockets can guarantee that their voices are easily heard. Those who can pay more (think big companies) will have their Web content sped up, while those who can't (think scrappy activists and bloggers) will have their content slowed down, if it arrives at all.

President Obama strongly supports net neutrality, and so do most members of the FCC. With so much at stake for black communities, you would expect black leaders and civic organizations to line up in support of an open Internet. Think again.

Many of our nation's leading civil rights groups -- like the NAACP, the National Urban League and LULAC -- and influential members of the Congressional Black Caucus have signed on to letters and made statements that have had the effect of supporting AT&T, Verizon and Comcast in their efforts to kill net neutrality. In some cases, the leaders and groups don't seem to understand the actual issues in play or don't know how they are being used. In others it seems to be a matter of long-standing relationships or the need to maintain the flow of corporate dollars.

AT&T and Verizon have been in our communities for years. They have provided jobs and have done a great job hiring and promoting black workers. They have provided millions of dollars to community institutions and programs. That has earned them a degree of trust with many organizations that have now gone to bat for them, even though these companies do not have a good record of making sure their core services are affordable or accessible to those with low incomes or in remote areas.