We Will Not Be Silenced: Fighting for Digital Freedom and an Open Internet

A free and open internet is essential for Black people to get information, connect with each other, share joy and culture with one another, and build power to get free. On December 14, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said “eff that” and voted to repeal ‘net neutrality’ – an Obama-era policy that allowed all internet content to be accessed equitably at the same speeds.

Net neutrality prohibited internet service providers (ISPs) from censoring websites, charging customers more for accessing particular websites, and throttling (slowing the speed) of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, etc.. For folks that think that ISPs would never do a thing like that, let’s call into the space that time that Comcast was sued in 2007 for blocking access to a streaming service. Boop.

But what does this repeal really mean for you? Now that net neutrality has been repealed, many people are wondering how this will affect their usage of the internet. At first, there won’t be many changes; in fact, changes could be so small that you don’t notice at first. For example, Instagram may take a couple seconds longer to load your #WCW selfie. Or it may be that big ISPs acquire smaller ISPs behind the scenes and use that to gain unfair amounts of power. Or it could mean that you now have to pay a small fee to book an appointment online to get some birth control. In any case, these changes will undoubtedly grow in impact over time, and we very well may see a future where Beyonce is no longer a searchable topic on the internet. Gasp.

upsplash image typing
Time to log off. Forever. (photo from upslash.com)

Even though joking about Beyonce being taken from the internet may be funny, the harsh reality is that, in any scenario, the impact of this decision will be devastating for poor, working-class and middle-class Black folks, our families, and our communities. The FCC commissioners who voted to repeal have suggested that free market competition will protect ISPs from abusing their power and price-gouging customers. In other words, they claim that repealing net neutrality gives customers the ability to “have a choice” and switch to a different ISP if they don’t like the throttling and pricing of their current ISP.

This is all with the understanding that, without any rules to hold them accountable, ISP’s will have some form of incentive or “goodwill” to run their operations fairly in order to keep their customers. Sound fair and square? Naw. A lot of Americans don’t have enough ISPs servicing their area to choose from for this to be true. 48% of Americans have only one broadband internet provider that services the minimum standard for internet in their area. For these Americans, their only choice is to put up with manipulated services from their only ISP and pay the price that they demand, or risk not having access to the Internet and technology that continues to have an increasing influence on our everyday lives.

This does not even begin to account for the many places across the United States that struggle to even have internet access in the first place. Inequality in internet access is a concern for many American cities, like Detroit, where advocates believe that the unemployment rate of 40 percent is partly due to a widespread lack of internet accessThe same can be said for rural communities in America, where only 60 percent of households have access to the internet.

This disparity has pushed some folks, like Equitable Internet Initiative, to take matters into their own hands and build their own wireless networks. But even then, these entrepreneurial efforts still rely on the infrastructure of ISPs. A lack of net neutrality could mean that an internet provider, like Comcast or Verizon, can throttle speed to an organizing petition to hold a police officer accountable for killing a Black woman, or could even block websites with information about accessing an abortion and other reproductive health services.

activists at wake up call rally 2
BYP100 DC activists at the net neutrality “Wake Up Call” rally on December 14, 2017 in Washington, DC, to protest the FCC’s vote to repeal net neutrality (photo from BYP100)

All of this means nothing to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and the FCC commissioners who believe that net neutrality is “bad for innovation” and that “real, actual threats” to an open internet are the policing of triggering and offensive speech. But what kind of innovation are they really talking about? What about the brilliant innovation of the different social movements that rose out of social media, under a free and open internet? What about the many times the internet and social media has been leveraged to hold hateful individuals accountable for their actions? All of the cultural production that people are able to share freely with each other?

Moreover, what about the activism which would surely be stifled? We cannot understate the potentially devastating impact this repeal could have on Black organizing.

Mass digital mobilizations, such as activists in Ferguson raising awareness about police terror and militarization, the #FreeMarissa campaign activating people across the globe to rally for the cause of prison abolition, and more recently the #MeToo campaign to uplift the voices of survivors of sexual assault, have the potential to cease to exist under this repeal. The same can be said for international campaigns – would we have heard of #FeesMustFall, a student-led movement in South Africa protesting rising fees in education that garnered widespread attention on social media, without net neutrality?

A free, open internet has empowered all of these campaigns to establish platforms where they previously did not, and probably would not, have existed otherwise. Each one of these instances has shifted the narratives of society closer and closer to a posture of liberation and that is not something we can afford to give up. So there is no option of sitting on the sidelines in this fight for a free, open internet – we must fight back.

Confronting the realities of this repeal can be exhausting, but the truth is that even though the FCC may have won this battle, the fight for net neutrality is far from over. And as we continue to fight for a free, open internet in the courts we must never forget to continue to challenge the systems that allowed our digital rights to hang in the balance to begin with. Whether that is through the use of alternative search engines like DuckDuckGo that protect your privacy or social networks like SteemIt that pay you to curate content, we must always consider the ways we can decentralize structures and dismantle toxic systems.

We must recognize that a free, open internet is essential in our fight for Black joy and our fight to get free.


— written by Jonathan Butler, MelaNation writer and editor

— edited by Jordan DeLoach, MelaNation lead editor
and Christina Thompson, activist with BYP100 DC

posted December 21, 2017

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