A group of media justice advocates are determined to move the conversation about Web rights from the beltway into the mainstream. They say the goal is to take what's usually a wonky back room conversation between politicians and telecommunications companies and engage it with ordinary people in communities of color who they say often feel the brunt of decades of deregulatory policies.
The Center for Media Justice will this week introduce Black Voices for Internet Freedom, a coalition of ten national groups who are working to educate users of their communications rights on the Web, and on their phones. The group is set to launch on Friday during a panel discussion in Washington, D.C.
"Even when you strip away the policy or national battles like the AT&T merger or net neutrality, there are real basic concerns that are huge motivators for people [to join]," said Amalia Deloney, grassroots policy director at the Center for Media Justice. "Are people familiar with LifeLine or LinkUp? Do they know about transparency in billing? How are they using their mobile phones to search for jobs?"
The coalition was described by Deloney as a sister campaign to Latinos for Internet Freedom, a similar effort to educate Latino communities about Internet policy issues.
The launch of the coalition underscores a tension that has long existed between bigger name beltway labor and civil rights groups and so-called "netroots" activists. That tension reached a head this year after AT&T announced its $39 billion bid to acquire rival T-Mobile. Several nationally recognized groups like SEIU, the Communications Workers of America, and the NAACP came out in support of the deal, arguing that it would ultimately provide desperately needed jobs in communities of color. Netroots activists, meanwhile, argued that the opposite was true: the merger would be bad for jobs and prove too costly for users already locked into an industry with little competition. The fighting became heated amid allegations that the beltway groups' endorsements could be directly drawn back to charitable donations from AT&T -- allegations that the groups in question steadfastly denied.*
The concerns of netroots activists gained new credibility last month, when the Justice Department announced a lawsuit to block the merger, also citing that the deal would be bad for business and consumers.
Yet while those high profile battles provide an interesting backdrop for the new coalition, members insist that their intentions stretch far past any one policy or consumer issue.
"We want to show that there are real people in black and Latino communities outside the beltway and big civil rights organizations that are about the issues and have an actual political line," said Deloney.
Sage Crump is an organizer with Art is Change, a national coalition of artists and activists committed to progressive political change, and says that the coalition isn't just about media policy. "We recognized that the Internet is equally tied to social justice movements," Crump said. "It's not a new or distinct phenomena."
"If we don't protect that access, we are shutting down important avenues," Crump added.
That sentiment was echoed by Rev. James Patterson, executive director of the Partnership of African American Churches. "People are beginning to understand the value and necessity of the Internet and how those issues can impact us where we live and where we work," Patterson said. "These things are happening in real time. It's important that we be critically engaged."
For many, that engagement has important historical context.
"Throughout the history of media in this country, whenever technology comes along, it fundamentally changes our media system," said Joe Torres, a Senior Advisor at media watchdog Free Press and co-author of the forthcoming book "News for All People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media."
"Whenever something new comes along -- whether it was the telegraph, or cable -- there's always an opportunity to allow more people to participate, but corporations are able to lobby lawmakers and pass new rules," Torres added.
Torres, who's slated to give opening remarks at the group's launch on Friday, says that this history doesn't need to repeat itself. "Will the Internet remain an open or closed medium?," Torres asks rhetorically. "That's what we're fighting for now, to keep the Internet open and allow for participation from the greatest number of people."
* This piece has been updated since publication.