Earlier this week, the Federal Communications Commission voted to adopt rules that will affect the way average people receive data and other content over the Internet. The results of the vote — meant as a compromise between the interests of big business and the needs of "the little guy" — are likely to have a disproportionate impact on minorities.
Dubbed "net neutrality" rules, they are meant to fulfill a promise that President Barack Obama made to protect a "level playing field" for all comers to the online space and prevent Internet service providers from blocking or slowing down Web traffic out of competition or greed.
The president said the vote "will help preserve the free and open nature of the Internet while encouraging innovation, protecting consumer choice and defending free speech." However, it seems that few others are thrilled with the results of the FCC's vote.
Republican lawmakers vowed to overthrow the rules, which they described as unnecessary regulation and a power grab by the government. The rules prohibit ISPs from blocking legal Web traffic, although they appear to allow providers to sell faster delivery speeds for additional money.
The rules also leave out wireless carriers, who provide Internet access to smartphones, among other devices. The sole African-American FCC commissioner, Mignon Clyburn, expressed reservations about that exemption because of the heavy reliance on wireless by minorities.
The Root asked James Rucker, co-founder of the online-activism (and pro-net neutrality) group ColorOfChange, why a number of grassroots groups are also unhappy with the FCC's new rules.
The Root: You've called the results of the FCC's vote a giveaway to the biggest corporate players. Why?
James Rucker: There are basically three big issues on the table. One is the prevention of paid prioritization, where an Internet service provider, based on who is sending [it] traffic, can put them on a lower tier or a higher tier. What that basically means is that if you have AT&T or Verizon and they're looking at Skype traffic coming across, they can say, well, this is Skype, a competitor to us — we're in the phone business, effectively — and we want them to pay more [in order for their data to go through at the same speed as the ISP's].
If you're Comcast, [you] could say to Hulu, which is providing video online we're going to charge an additional fee for [it]. We're going to charge [the fee] to Hulu or the customer or whoever we want to. Or we're just going to prioritize that traffic differently: It will be slower; it will not come across at the same level of quality. So paid prioritization was one of the biggest issues that didn't get addressed [in the FCC rules].
Two, wireless is where most black and brown people are, and wireless was basically exempted from the net neutrality rules.
Three, there's the issue of reclassification [of broadband as a telecommunications service], so the FCC could treat broadband just like they do telephone service, where you could have the providers pay into a fund that makes broadband affordable for low-income consumers. [The FCC has] not indicated that they're interested in giving themselves the authority to do that.
So from our perspective, it's a loss for our communities. We're starting down the path of what we saw with broadcast radio, with cable television: where essentially, marginalized voices from communities that already have a hard time communicating in their own voices, politically organizing — those communities are more than likely destined to be second-class players when it comes to the Internet.
TR: So the FCC is calling the rules it voted on "net neutrality," but actually they're not?
JR: Yep. What [the rules] don't prevent is paid prioritization — they're allowing tiering. And they're not protecting wireless. Those are two essential qualities of any real net neutrality rules, and [both] are absent. So it's dressed up; it makes me think of Bush's "Mission Accomplished" statement, when you declare something is over when in fact it is not.
TR: What's next?
JR: From my perspective, there's the question of whether or not there's room for lawsuits. One concern is that black and brown people, because of our propensity to use wireless, won't be protected by the net neutrality rules. There are some legal questions about whether there's some remedy there.
We also want to educate the public about what's at stake, to create a level of public accountability, so that when AT&T or Verizon or Comcast actually does something that is either bad [for] wireless or is actually tiering on the Internet, that [it knows] there's a PR price to pay.
Sheryl Huggins Salomon is deputy editor of The Root.
Sheryl Huggins Salomon is senior editor-at-large of The Root and a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based editorial consultant. Follow her on Twitter.