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Net neutrality supporters are drowning out the voices of underserved communities.
More than 15 million comments have been filed with the Federal Communications Commission on its Restoring Internet Freedom docket, which focuses on the concept of net neutrality, and specifically Title II regulations imposed in 2015 under the previous administration. While this colossal number includes many sentiments – including an unsettling number of foreign and some 6 million fake comments – it does not contain significant representation from poor, minority and senior Americans.
Media and communications scholars have documented that online activism is the province of the digital elite and largely aligns with race and class. Herein lies an unsettling problem. “Digital democracy” has been promoted to enable underrepresented consumers to become more politically involved. This seems intuitive, but the reality is that digitization can, if anything, exacerbate the problem of these individuals not participating.
Examining the implications of net neutrality regulations enforced via Title II regulation is particularly alarming. Research confirms these complex issues are predominantly lobbied by special interest groups who neglect input from the disenfranchised and instead focus on the digital elite. In fact, a review of activist and pro-Title II group Battle for the Net’s online petitions on internet regulation contain words and imagery that play specifically to people who earn at least $76,000, have advanced degrees, are aged 21-34 and are white collar professionals.
This hardly seems to be a policy debate keeping in mind the millions of Americans that are low-income, minorities and/or seniors, but rather one attempting to appease a growing tech elite base filled with market monopolies including Amazon and Alphabet.
The reality is that Title II ignores and hurts underserved communities. It prohibits a free market for data which allows these individuals to enjoy free and reduced price content and offerings. It has cost the nation some $35 billion annually in lost participation from content-side actors and advertisers which would otherwise support internet access to these groups. It is also responsible for deterring the creation of some 750,000 jobs.
These lost investments are a detrimental blow to seniors, low-income and minority communities. We all know that to get more of a good or service, it needs to be invested in to achieve improvement and expansion. The same goes for broadband services. In order for the U.S. to continue improving its broadband networks, especially with regard to expanding into unserved as well as underserved communities, this industry needs investments to be coming in – not leaving. But through the heavy-handed overregulation Title II imposes, companies were afraid and/or less motivated to invest. The result? Diminished achievement in building out America’s broadband services.
This, of course, effects millions of Americans, but perhaps none more than poor, minority and senior populations. Low-income and minority families depend on broadband, often via mobile devices, to reach socially-beneficial digital services that can improve their lives. Think applications that offer services like networking, education and management of financial resources. For seniors, it’s equally destructive as limited broadband prevents these Americans – 48 million in 2015 – from accessing tools to monitor their health or communicate in real-time when there is an accident or emergency.
Proponents who champion Title II regulation “in the name of the underserved” couldn’t be more misleading. An assiduous study of 13 advocacy groups in 2015 reported that the positions of the organizations tend to reflect the race and class of their constituencies and staff. The study observes that advocacy groups themselves, “represent a highly professionalized field of collective action, which hardly fits the criteria of a social movement,” and that a, “typical civil advocate working inside the Beltway was dressed in a business suit and sat in front of a computer” and invariably, “holds a law degree.”
By contrast to these digital elites, the Minority Media Telecom Council, birthed from the civil rights movement, notes, “The digital elite can afford to intellectualize the value of free data, but for communities of color it can mean an affordable digital connection to the future. This is even more true for small, multicultural businesses that rely on mobile connections to reach their audiences.”
There are thankfully transparent champions of internet regulations and principles that do bear in mind the effects of these policies on less well-of Americans. Current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has made it his goal to close the digital divide and spends his time listening to real people and their concerns. He’s traveled around the country, talking to Americans in rural and urban communities to better understand the role broadband and limited regulation plays in improving lives.
The best thing we can do, particularly during this heated net neutrality debate, is to support principles and agendas that let our nation’s free market spirit help the poor, old, and people of color to get online quickly, easily, and at the lowest cost. Contrary to what Title II proponents say, this can be done. And in fact, there’s a bipartisan record to prove it.
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