On Thursday, the Senate voted against a resolution to do away with federal net neutrality rules that work to maintain openness on the Internet. The vote was just the latest episode in a long saga in which lawmakers, consumer advocates, and telecommunications companies position themselves to influence how communication will happen in the 21st century. And it's a battle with particular relevance to communities of color, many of which are simultaneously helping to drive broadband use despite often being among those most effected by its slow expansion.
The Republican-backed resolution failed in the Democratic-controlled Senate by a vote of 52-46. The new rules are currently set to take effect on November 20.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed a set a fairly lukewarm net neutrality rules last December. In a contentious vote, the Commission passed rules that made it illegal for companies to slow or block Internet traffic for their users on home broadband connections. However, the rules were ominously silent on mobile broadband.
Yet companies and lawmakers have lobbied against even these tenuous reforms. After December's vote to pass the rules, Republican lawmakers immediately vowed to either strip the FCC of its rule making ability or kill the net neutrality fight before the rules. In April, the Republican-controlled House voted 240-179 in favor of a measure the disapprove the new rules.
"Net neutrality allows all of us to participate equally online," Chancellor Williams of Free Press told Colorlines.com. "Especially when you're talking about communities of color that have for so long been marginalized when it comes to other communications platforms and mainstream media. The Internet is one of the few places where we can take our stories into our own hands."
Other media justice groups spoke out in favor Thursday for the Senate's decision.
"We're extremely pleased that the Senate has voted to allow the FCC to carry out it's work - which is to put people before profits and keep the Internet open and free from discrimination," said amalia deloney, Media Policy Field Director for the Center for Media Justice in a press release. "Maintaining an open Internet ensures that our communities have access to the full creative potential of this indispensable communications system and more importantly, allows us to use this important tool to organize around critical justice issues and strengthen the economic well being of our families and communities."
"This resolution not only would have undone the FCC's open Internet rules," Williams added. "But it would've taken away the agency's ability to protect consumers."
At the heart of the battle is who should dictate how the Internet is used, at what cost, and by whom. Telecommunications companies, many conservatives, and some democrats have argued that the rules will create unnecessary barriers for companies to expand broadband use. Consumer and civil rights advocates, on the other hand, have pointed to instances in which companies have already slowed or blocked content for their users, and argue that the rules are a necessary next step in the equitable modernization of the country's broadband infrastructure.
"Over the past 20 years, the Internet has grown and flourished without burdensome regulations from Washington," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) after Thursday's vote, according to the Los Angeles Times. Hutchinson led the push in the Senate to overturn the rules. "If we're going to keep an open and free Internet and keep the jobs it spawns, we should reject the FCC regulation on net neutrality."
Democratic Minnesota Senator Al Franken countered Hutchison's claims on Thursday. "Net neutrality is not about a government takeover of the Internet, and it is not about changing anything," he told the Times. "Net neutrality and the rules the FCC passed are about keeping the Internet the way it is today and the way it has always been."
All sides agree that the country's infrastructure is badly in need of an upgrade. Even the most modest assessments estimate that nearly forty percent of the country is currently without access to high-speed Internet at home. It's a problem that's become especially important as the country continues to strut confidently into an information age in which everything from job applications to social security forms move online, and the Internet becomes an integral lifeline to participatory democracy.
Low income and people of color are among those hardest hit by the slow moves toward expansion. A 2010 report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that while 79 percent of whites report regularly using the Internet, only 69 percent of blacks and 59 percent of Latinos report regularly using the Internet. While price is often a prohibitive factor in people of color adopting broadband at home, a 2010 study by the Social Science Research Council found that other factors, such as availability and user proficiency, also play a role.
The FCC's own broadband availability map shows entire swaths of the country, usually rural and Midwestern areas, that have limited to no broadband availability.
Users of color, however, are are leading the way in mobile broadband use. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that blacks and Latinos are among the biggest users of mobile Web, and low-income users are among its fastest adopters. In 2011, a Pew Internet & American Life report found that black and Latino users are the most active video consumers online.
"This has been a sort of extremist push to overturn the FCC's net neutrality rules, and I think you saw a majority of the Senate really side with the American people," Williams, of Free Press, said about Thursday's vote. "They're saying 'we want to make sure the Internet is protected and that we don't have corporate gatekeepers controlling the Internet.'"
For some lawmakers, this week's vote was a test to see if the country is willing to let its assets be controlled by corporations. Massachusetts Senator and former democratic presidential candidate John Kerry wrote a letter to his colleagues last week warning that a vote to disapprove of net neutrality rules could have far-reaching implications on everything from health the environmental regulations.
"It will set the precedent that this Congress is prepared to deny independent regulators their ability to execute the law," Kerry wrote, according to The Hill. "That would put at risk health rules, environmental protections, worker rights and every other public protection that our agencies enforce that some in Congress do not like."
For now, advocates are declaring victory. But the fight is far from over. Though today's Senate vote was applauded by many consumer advocates including Free Press, the media watchdog group has also filed suit in an effort to strengthen wireless provisions for net neutrality.
"We know that these rules don't go far enough in protecting consumers, and that younger folks and communities of color rely on wireless devices much more heavily than other Internet users," Williams said. "The rules that the FCC put in place, we're glad they're there, but they're certainly not perfect and we want to make sure there are the same protections for wireless and wireline users."