Web-Access Ruling Is a Loss for People of Color

Your Take: Without a free and open Internet, black and brown people will pay the price.  

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The fight to preserve a free and open Internet has been raging for years, but now it’s crunch time.

The big telecom companies have just won a major round in their fight to privatize the Web, and it’s now up to the Federal Communications Commission to reverse the missteps it has made over the past decade, overcome doubts about its political mettle and restore equal access to what was once a thoroughly democratic communications platform, open to all.

Put bluntly: As of now, Net neutrality is dead.

Conceptually, Net neutrality requires that providers treat the Internet as a public utility—and can't subject users to preferential pricing or access schemes based on the service or platform of subscribers.

But on Tuesday, a federal appeals court in Washington struck down the FCC’s Open Internet Order, the regulatory framework enshrining at least the principle of open access, and said the FCC lacked the authority to enforce the order as it was written. It was a big victory for plaintiff Verizon and, by extension, for all telecommunications companies eager to turn the Internet into a mirror image of cable TV: full of restrictions, limits on consumer choice and toll stations designed to maximize their profits at our expense. And it was a loss for their customers.

The good news is that it can still be revived.

The court clearly recognized the FCC’s authority to regulate the business practices of Internet service providers. And the FCC now has an opportunity both to rewrite its regulations and correct the glaring loophole related to mobile in the order, which dates back to 2010, so that the creeping privatization of the Internet we’ve experienced with the rise of smartphones is reversed.

This is particularly important for black and brown Americans, whose adoption of smartphone use has outpaced that of the general population. Our communities rely on the Internet to speak without a corporate filter, to access information and connect to the world and to be able to organize and hold public officials and corporations accountable.

Without the Net neutrality protections we had a week ago, the public is now at the mercy of the massive corporate Internet service and Web content providers, who are free to collude to prioritize certain websites, services and applications above others—either by blocking or slowing down access to the competition, or by charging customers more to regain access.

This practice has already started, due to the way the Open Internet Order has for too long arbitrarily treated the mobile Web as distinct from fixed-line access. There is no defensible technology or policy rationale for regulating the Internet differently depending on the device one uses to access it, and now that smartphones have become near-ubiquitous, the insidious effect of the FCC’s giveaway to wireless companies has become apparent to their tens of millions of subscribers.