From #BlackGirlsCode and #BlackMenSmile to #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackTwitter, the black internet is part of the 21st-century movement for dignity, rights and freedom—and it’s under attack.
Since the Trump administration seems hell-bent on silencing black voices in the United States, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Trump’s Federal Communications Commission Chairman and former Verizon executive Ajit Pai circulated a draft order to repeal net neutrality just two days before Thanksgiving.
The draft order proposes to eliminate key civil rights protections codified by former President Barack Obama’s FCC to prevent discrimination from internet service providers, despite the fact that our current net neutrality rules were demanded by more than 4 million members of the public, and almost 80 percent of Americans (pdf) want to preserve the FCC’s current open internet rules, including 73 percent of Republicans.
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the only black voice on the five-member commission, and a champion for digital civil rights, said, “Net neutrality is the First Amendment for the internet” at a recent public hearing held in Atlanta by the racial-justice coalition Voices for Internet Freedom.
In a New York Times op-ed, comedian W. Kamau Bell, host of CNN’s Emmy Award-winning United Shades of America, detailed how net neutrality helps advance social justice movements, and outlined the importance of an open internet for communities of color.
They’re both exactly right, which may give black internet users some insight into why Trump’s FCC wants these rules gone, with a quickness.
The bright-line rules passed by the FCC in 2015 currently prohibit blocking, throttling and paid prioritization—all things that would make your internet experience slower, more expensive and more censored than it is right now. Under the current rules, internet service providers can’t “unreasonably interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage” people’s ability to access and use the lawful content, applications, services or devices of their choosing.
Pai’s proposed repeal will be voted on during the FCC’s next meeting on Dec. 14, and it could change all of that. Besides silencing black voices, the repeal of net neutrality proposed by Trump’s FCC includes plans to remove Title II classification of broadband ISPs. Title II gives the FCC the authority to treat companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon as common carriers of internet content, like a utility company.
Under the current rules, ISPs like Comcast are forced to handle all traffic equally. If Pai repeals net neutrality, Comcast could use a pay-for-play model to charge higher fees to internet users in exchange for preferential treatment, which could affect how fast or slow internet content loads for you. It’s exactly because net neutrality prevents fast and slow lanes that comedians like Bell and artists like Issa Rae, who launched her career with a web series, have been able to grow audiences like wildfire. A pay-for-play business model would stunt the growth of the black internet.
If Ajit Pai has his way and the rules he just proposed pass, we may lose the internet as a resource to build black political power, economic independence and social influence. We can’t let that happen.
Whether through the treatment of ESPN host Jemele Hill, journalist April Ryan, or former NFL quarterback and activist Colin Kaepernick, this administration has made it clear that “making America great again” means making black people second-class citizens—again. Using Jim Crow-era bully tactics, the president has tried to make an example of high-profile members of the black community who have used their platform to advance the cause of civil rights or raise their voice in protest. Despite being a conduit for presidential influence, the open internet has transformed black audiences into digital agitators who can talk and fight back online.
It’s a good thing, too—because our voices online might be needed to save our lives offline.
An open internet protected by Title II net neutrality is what enabled #BlackLivesMatter to emerge, not as hashtag activism but as the amplified black demand for police accountability and greater democracy. #MeToo also went viral, not as a simple declaration of past injury but as a powerful demand resulting in a wave of accountability from those who abuse their power through sexual harassment and assault. In the spirit of those who used the internet to demand the ecological and human rights of indigenous communities at Standing Rock in North and South Dakota, immigrant voices are right now using the open internet to demand a clean #DreamActNow, while Muslim digital voices are demanding #NoMuslimBan.
The open internet uplifts the voices of people of color and racial-justice advocates, activists and dissenters of all stripes, as well as independent content creators, journalists and entrepreneurs. That’s why these constituencies have joined together, alongside millions of individual internet users, to demand that the FCC leave the 2015 rules in place.
It’s clear—the right to speak and to be heard, and the ability to seek opportunity, stay connected and protest injustice, are core civil rights. In a digital age, protecting these core civil rights and the black internet means enforcing, not repealing, Title II net neutrality.
Malkia Cyril is the founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice and a 2017 honoree of The Root 100. Follow her on Twitter.