Digital Freedoms: ‘A 21st Century Civil Rights Issue’

By Jamilah King Apr 07, 2010

Those were the words from ColorofChange, a web-based black advocacy organization, in a newsletter sent out this morning to supporters announcing its appeal to the FCC to maintain an Open Internet. The message came on the heels of yesterday’s controversial DC appeals court decision to overturn an FCC ruling from August, 2008 that forced Internet giant Comcast to stop blocking its users from accessing BitTorrent file sharing sites. The ruling is a clear blow to net neutrality, and may set a legal precedent that gives companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast an open hand to block content on the Internet. We’ve already covered what the debate says about race, and this latest news could jeopardize the work of Internet activists, community organizers, and even the FCC itself. Organizers, however, remain optimistic. "[Yesterday’s ruling] just confirms what we’ve already believed about the immense reach of telecommunications companies into the media policy world," said amalia deloney, coordinator for the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net). "Communication rights don’t need to be de-prioritized in the struggle for Civil Rights — this is a Civil Rights issue." Deloney said that the her group plans to use the ruling as an opportunity to demystify the political process for its 370 members nationwide. The group planned a legal briefing this afternoon for its members. Still, yesterday’s ruling has left many casual observers to question the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband access in the first place. Last month the commission released an ambitious 360-page plan to expand national broadband service, and the majority of its members are supportive of net neutrality regulations. There could be a legal silver lining nestled in the Communications Act. Under the Bush administration the FCC was on a path toward deregulation when it classified cable modem internet service providers under Title I "information carriers" instead of Title II "telecommunications" service. The latter makes it illegal for service providers to charge more and deliver less when it comes to essential communications devices. Now the push is to get the FCC to, in essence, reclassify cable modem Internet service providers. Confused? Just consider how little precedence there is in regulating a communication tool so vast — and new — as the Internet. And the fact that the original Communications Act was penned way back in 1934. Policy makers and telecom companies are playing a game of catch up. Which leads to a second potential course of action for the FCC. In last month’s report, the FCC made strong recommendations to include broadband in the Universal Service Fund, which provides quality and affordable rates to customers on essential communication tools like phones and, if advocates and the FCC gets their way, the Internet. It’s bound to be a lengthy battle, and the process likely wouldn’t begin until late summer or early fall of this year.