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 ColorOfChange.org, 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.
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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.
AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have also all given generously to political campaigns. In turn, they have received a great deal of support from those members of Congress they've backed. In addition, they have contributed millions of dollars to civil rights organizations — with these same organizations signing on to letters that echo the positions of the communications industry.
They've even propped up front groups like the Alliance for Digital Equality, Broadband for America and the Internet Innovation Alliance — organizations with no constituency or real membership — to create a chorus of black people and others to make their arguments, with notable figures like former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and former Rep. Harold Ford lending their brands to the cause.
And these companies have pushed a bogus argument that plays on the reality of the digital divide. They've sold the idea that if they have their way and are able to do away with net neutrality, they'll take the additional profits they make and suddenly invest in our communities where they traditionally haven't (despite already seeing profit margins as high as 80 percent). It's a cynical trickle-down argument that defies the basic logic of how businesses operate. Even so, it's become a talking point for several civil rights advocates and groups.
Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) is in pursuit of the position of ranking member of the House Communications, Technology and the Internet (CTI) subcommittee — the House committee responsible for shaping legislation regarding the Internet. Rush is regarded as a champion for his constituents and a supporter of progressive policies. But he has also been the leading black voice in opposition to an open Internet, the sole Democrat joining Republicans in crafting a bill that attempted to undermine net neutrality in 2006.
Two of Rush's biggest campaign contributors have been AT&T and Verizon, and Rush has a community technology center bearing his name that was built through a $1 million contribution from AT&T. Rush and his staff have maintained that net neutrality is a "solution in search of a problem."
No one who is familiar with the development of the Internet and the basics of capitalism and who has spent a day researching the issue of net neutrality could ever honestly say that. There are only two explanations I can find: that Rush is being extremely naive or is being compromised by corporate interests. Either one should disqualify someone from serving in such a powerful position.
After I wrote a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, arguing that Rush was a poor choice for the job, Rush attacked me without engaging any of the arguments I put forth. (His main charge was that ColorOfChange was "funded and controlled by Silicon Valley" — laughable, given that not only do we not receive industry funding, but a few months ago we led a well-publicized protest at Google for its flip-flop on net neutrality.)
But it wasn't just Rush. Consider David Honig, a trusted friend of many in the civil rights community who has done important work in the past but who has recently spent a great deal of his time organizing the civil rights community to line up with the telecoms against net neutrality. He assembled almost every civil rights and black legislative group you can imagine to counter our letter. Did they engage any of the arguments I put forth? Nope — not one. What they were doing, whether they knew it or not, was helping Honig orchestrate a push-back devoid of any compelling arguments to counter my rationale for opposing Rush.
Black politicians and institutions have historically been a voice of conscience. And they still hold a degree of that currency today. However, it appears that companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are aware of this fact and are exploiting it. At the end of the day, it's up to us. Much of what's being done — whether by a black member of Congress or one of our institutions — is being done in our name. And in the case of the undermining of net neutrality, it will be our communities that stand to lose the most.
James Rucker is a co-founder of ColorofChange.org, which advocates a stronger political voice for African Americans.