An August 9 proposal by Google and Verizon that corporations should be able to control Internet access and content over cable, telephone lines and wireless devices was the impetus for an estimated 700 persons gathering inside the South High auditorium on the evening of August 19 to voice their opposition.
The two-hour-plus “Public Hearing on the Future of the Internet” was co-sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Free Press; the Center for Media Justice, located in Oakland, Calif.; and the Minneapolis-based Main Street Project.
Opponents believe that if the Google-Verizon proposal is approved, Verizon, for example, could charge content providers more to prioritize their services. This eventually would end open, low-cost Internet and lead to large companies dominating the web – an end to “net neutrality.”
“Net neutrality” means that Internet service providers may not discriminate between different online content and applications. “I believe that net neutrality is the First Amendment issue of our time,” proclaimed U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) at the August 19 hearing.
Franken reminded the audience that the three national television networks eventually were bought out and merged into larger companies because of media deregulation. He and other proponents see the nation’s largest telephone and cable companies as potentially becoming “Internet gatekeepers” who decide how fast or slow websites will be or which ones consumers have access to.
Without net neutrality, the Internet would look more like cable television, where consumers have little or no choice over which channels are available to select from. “You are going to have a handful of companies [who] will have their hands on all the information we get,” the senator warned.
Added FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who opposes the Google-Verizon plan, “What happened was that in less than a generation, a media landscape that should have been moving toward more diversity, more localism, and more competition was transformed into a market controlled by a handful of players.
We must not ever allow the openness of the Internet to become just another pawn in the hands of powerful corporate interests.”
“When [the federal] government does not act, corporations will,” said Franken. “The only thing they care about is their bottom line.”
The Center for Media Justice’s amelia deloney (her spelling) told the crowd that Latinos are mostly affected and don’t have Internet access or don’t use it. A National Telecommunications and Information Administration report released in February pointed out that Internet use is highest among Asians (67 percent), followed by Whites (65 percent), Blacks (45 percent) and Latinos (39 percent).
Scores of “Latinos for Internet Freedom” placards popped up throughout the audience as deloney spoke. When later asked if Latinos are more concerned about the Internet than Blacks – there were barely 10 Blacks in the auditorium last week, including FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn – deloney said that Latinos and Blacks “have taken a somewhat oppositional stand on net neutrality.”
“We [Blacks and other people of color] are almost the last to get involved” at such events as last week’s meeting, admitted Clyburn, the only Black on the five-person FCC Commission. She was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2009; her term runs until June 30, 2012.
“I think it is part of my duty and my obligation to ensure that the public’s interaction with the Internet is positive and enhanced,” said Clyburn, adding that Blacks and Latinos “outpace” Whites in acquiring cell phones and other such portable devices. “If the majority of your communication is taking place on a mobile device, then it is up to [the FCC] to make sure that when you sign on, that it is protected, enhanced and robust as anybody else’s.”
“Historically it is hard to get people of color engaged in these issues,” said Free Press CEO Josh Silver. “I think they are struggling with so many immediate and clear present problems and unfair challenges.”
Terms such as “net neutrality” sometimes scare people, admits deloney.
“If I talk to my grandma or my mom and dad about net neutrality, their eyes glass over,” she said. “Even the word ‘neutrality’ makes people feel it is not a hot-button issue. I think what we need to do is…use language like ‘Internet freedom’ and ‘open Internet.'”
“These discussions are often associated for high-tech and middle-class people,” admitted Theodore Dennis, the outreach project coordinator for Twin Cities Community Voice Mail, a St. Paul homeless advocacy group. “There is an understanding of [the Internet’s] importance in the Black community, but there isn’t a conscious way of how to talk about it.”
Dennis was the only Black person among the 40 or so who signed up to give two-minute testimonies to FCC Commissioners Clyburn and Michael Copps, who were both present. “The real point I wanted to make,” Dennis told them, “was to emphasize the role the Internet plays for those people at the very low end of society.”
“We need to be at these types of events and show that we are concerned,” said Urban Mass Media Group Executive Director Pete Rhodes III. “As an owner of a cable operation [WRNB cable radio], I am very concerned about this net neutrality position that is happening right now.
“It is important for a programmer like me, who for 25 years has been striving to create programming that is culturally specific for the community, to be able to continue to do that on a level playing field,” said Rhodes. “The African American community must stand up or forever be marginalized.”
Before the event, Sen. Franken told the MSR, “This is of awful importance to everyone. By and large, the African American community has a huge interest in this issue.”
“I’m happy to see a packed crowd, but I would like to see a lot more people of color,” added HOPE Community Organizing Director Chaka Mkali. He uses the Internet to communicate with other community organizers and as a platform for local musicians such as himself, a local hip hop artist. “There are tons of people who put out YouTube videos… Without those opportunities, we would be further out of the mix. It also provides economic stability in being able to put your music together as well as connecting with a wider audience, to be able to collaborate,” says Mkali.
“We are already at the bottom or near the bottom of the totem pole,” Mkali said of Internet usage and awareness by Blacks and other people of color. “How can we be pro-active to be inclusive?”
The net neutrality issue “is absolutely important” to people of color, says Mkali’s wife Danielle. “The more that the Internet gets limited or gets more difficult for us to either put stories on the Internet or read about stories on the Internet, it becomes a determent to us being educated. It’s very critical.
“I felt like my concerns were very well represented,” she said. “I was really impressed with Commissioners Clyburn and Copps coming out. It is not an easy task to sit in front of a crowd for a few hours and listen to how people feel about the Internet. They seem to really get it.”
“We know that the Internet can positively impact every single disparity that is happening and that exists in every single community,” said Commissioner Clyburn of the current open system. “You can access anything that the world has to offer for a relatively small amount of money.”
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