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).

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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.

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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.

Everyone, including critics of net neutrality, believes that consumers should have access to the websites, content and apps of their choice. Beyond being bad from a policy perspective, preventing access would be dumb business. The real question and challenge is how you ensure that broadband networks — wired, but particularly wireless — work effectively, reliably and efficiently when there's limited capacity (i.e., spectrum) to handle the exponential explosion in Internet traffic and streaming video — a growth pattern with no discernible end in sight.

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It's always rush hour on the broadband superhighway. From 2008 to 2009 alone, mobile-broadband data traffic grew a staggering 158 percent, according to Bernstein Research. In a world of finite capacity, is it good policy — not to mention realistic or even possible — to "deliver every piece of content with the same speed and priority, regardless of who puts it on the Net"?

For Rucker, the only answer is yes. Many others disagree because they understand that the only way to ensure that our calls don't get dropped, or that telemedicine remote video consult has a clear and stable connection, is by ensuring that cable and telecom companies have the ability to reasonably manage their networks.

After all, if you're an African American who is suffering from high blood pressure or diabetes and you have a wireless health-monitoring device, I suspect you'd want a system that prioritizes delivery of the information coming from your device to your doctor ahead of the person downloading a favorite new ringtone onto his or her smartphone. I know I'm willing to wait a little longer for my ringtone to download.

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The reality is that a diverse array of voices, extending far beyond cable and telecom companies —including Sens. Byron Dorgan and John Kerry, many technology firms and venture capitalists — don't agree with Rucker, as demonstrated by their support for the principled net neutrality compromise recently announced by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. What Rucker derides as "watered-down rules" is actually a thoughtful and sincere effort on the part of the FCC chairman to balance a multitude of priorities and sometimes conflicting interests. That's what governing and leadership necessitate.

Ultimately, too much is at stake for us to continue casting aspersions and questioning motives when people have differing priorities. Instead, we should seek to find common ground — and plenty exists — where we can work together and reach principled compromises that will help bring real progress and empowerment to our community.

David Sutphen is co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA).