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Opinion

E Faye Williams: Internet neutrality needs real protection

When the Federal Communications Commission repealed President Obama’s net neutrality rules last year, it launched a movement.

Around the country, there is a rising tide calling for permanent new rules to keep the internet open and free. No company should be permitted to interfere with our internet experience by blocking or prioritizing traffic or discriminating against anyone’s ability to participate online. In a digital world, net neutrality is a civil rights imperative – the only way to be sure that all citizens have a full and equal chance to be heard in the new public square.

Like any effective movement for change, if we don’t get the strategy right we won’t end up where we need to go.

That means fighting for strong, permanent net neutrality that will protect everyone online – not temporary half measures or, even worse, inconsistent or incomplete rules that cover some people or states but not others.

That is why local and state based efforts to pass narrow net neutrality for one city or one state are a mistake. While efforts to channel grassroots energy for net neutrality into local rules like the current legislative push in Olympia or the effort by a handful of mayors around the country to move locally on the issue are well-intentioned, in the end they cannot provide the lasting, enforceable protection for digital participation and equality we need.

Mostly, it’s a practical problem. There is only one internet. It flows in and out of jurisdictions and crosses borders and even oceans as a unified consistent whole. It cannot operate if it is carved into different localities or required to follow conflicting rules in different places. Net neutrality is no good if it protects you at home but not when you come to Washington to march!

This kind of patchwork will leave consumers holding the bag, as services they depend on in one state like unlimited streaming plans for their favorite shows or even parental controls are restricted once they cross state lines. Companies give up on potential products or new capabilities because of the risk some locality will veto them.

The need for national protection for the internet goes deeper still; it’s also a moral imperative. “Local control” sounds good, but it has a long and ugly history of being used to cover up the worst kinds of discrimination and backwards thinking. Whether it’s Southern cities shutting down swimming pools rather than integrate them or Northern ones passing discriminatory voter ID laws or starving communities of color of resources so Election Day lines go around the block in diverse neighborhoods, local control over political and civic participation has long been used to empower the worst forces in our society.

Many of these state and local efforts are championed by leaders we can trust; but the only way to truly protect net neutrality for all is to pass a strong, enforceable federal law that will ensure equal participation for everyone, everywhere.

Congress has the power to pass such a law, but unfortunately another bad strategy risks derailing this vital effort. Instead of fighting for real and comprehensive net neutrality, some leaders instead are pursuing a flawed shortcut approach called a “Congressional Act Review Act” resolution, a move that would reinstate the 2015 Obama version of net neutrality, but which is unlikely to pass Congress and almost certainly can’t get a presidential signature.

The CRA is also incomplete and applies only to internet providers, not to the big search and social media platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter. Yet those companies are notorious for collecting and profiling our data and have a long track record of discriminating against minority viewpoints and exposing people of color to harassment and abuse.

From the Charlottesville terrorists who used a Facebook event to organize their rally to the tsunami of abuse that assails black women when they speak up online, the digital landscape is deeply tilted against participation by women and people of color, and rules that don’t address this harassment – like those established by the proposed CRA – will do little to keep the internet open free.

Instead, we must focus our energies on pressuring leaders to fight for real change. No half measures. No balkanized “local control” solutions, and no exemptions or preferences for irresponsible monopoly tech platforms that enable so much misconduct, discrimination and abuse.

Congress has the ability to pass a real, permanent, comprehensive net neutrality law. Both Republican and Democratic voters care deeply about the internet – with over 76 percent of Americans demanding action.

Legislating is hard, but this issue is too important to settle for anything less.

E. Faye Williams is president and CEO of the National Congress of Black Women.


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