My mother, rest in peace, was a member of the Black Panther Party. She told me that truth was important, but insufficient to win the fight for equity and justice. She told me that disorganized truth can be eviscerated by a well organized lie.
Earlier this year, more than 700,000 people mobilized their voices and their bodies in the literal and hyperbolic heat of Arizona to stand against a discriminatory, unjust, and unconstitutional law that violates the basic human rights of Latinos in that state. Thousands texted, tweeted, facebooked, used emails, uploaded and downloaded images, blogged, skyped, and sent online action alerts to bypass the mainstream broadcast and print media bias on the issues of race and immigration. They successfully used the most dynamic and decentralized media of our time to organize truth and disorganize lies- to elevate their public voice, to plead their own cause.
And these leaders are not alone. The Internet has become a powerful platform and tool to not only navigate the institutions and companies that shape our daily lives, but is also a key platform from which to elevate the public voice of our communities and bypass the systemic racism and resulting exclusion of mainstream broadcast and print media.
Despite the salience of broadband and the Internet in the lives of people of color, the poor, and the movements that seek justice and equity – 98 million people lack access to broadband, and 14 million of those without access lack any chance to get it. The vast majority are poor, young, of color, disabled, or otherwise disenfranchised. Only 38% of African Americans have it. Fewer than half of all Latinos have it. Only 35% of those households with incomes of 25K or less have it, compared to 70% of households making $50K or more. Less than half of rural residents have it. Less than 10% of Native communities have it.
This gap represents far more than a digital divide. It is a reflection of the gaps in wealth, education, and enfranchised democracy our movement works so hard to close. According to the Census in 2009 43.6 million people were living in poverty, based on official standards that’s 1 in 7 Americans. Millions more are struggling at, or just above, the poverty line- and even more are undocumented, living in institutions or are otherwise uncounted. Many in the civil rights community understand this, and have leveraged an extraordinary fight for Internet deployment in poor communities all across this nation. But broadband access for us is about more than build out and deployment. To ensure full adoption in communities of color and the effective use of this platform to achieve our vision, we must make demand a framework for broadband policy that ensures equity and justice- and includes direct broadband subsidies to low-income households, schools, and libraries; protects vulnerable consumers especially those using broadband to call their loved ones in prison or in other countries; and codifies free speech for those for whom that right has been denied.
Some in the Civil Rights community believe that access is enough. But just as jobs without justice might otherwise be called America’s immigration policy, and citizenship without basic civil and human rights might be called being black in America- access to a communications platform without the power of self-representation turns a potentially potent platform into a piggy bank for big media. We have already subsidized phone, cable, and Internet companies with our public dollars, I refuse to subsidize them with my human rights as well.
Just as our communities in Arizona used the Internet to bypass the bias of mainstream media, elevate their public voice to protest and plead their own cause- every community of struggle in and beyond this nation seeks and deserves that right. The right of self-representation for communities of color online can only be secured by codifying rules that prevent telecommunications companies from discriminating or redlining for profit online. This set of rules is called network neutrality, and it is the Internet’s bill of rights. Net neutrality levels the online playing field so that movements and communities at the margins have a chance to do what the first freedom journals attempted- speak in our own voices to define our destiny.
Digital access and rights can lead to a 21st century education for our children, connected and cohered communities, sustainable local economies, increased energy efficiency, better health care, and media power for communities of struggle, for everyday people, and for our movements. The policy framework is there- regulated private investment balanced with public subsidies to low-income households and anchor institutions, consumer protections, and first amendment rights upgraded to a digital world. The mandate to expand the movement for media justice as a secondary but fundamental part of every struggle for social justice is clear. Our leadership is critical. The opportunity for our engagement is now.
But this fight we are waging is against some of the largest and most influential companies in existence. Telecommunications companies are the largest contributors to electoral campaigns, surpassing even the oil industry. They fund our largest civil rights groups. They contract with most of our states for the right to own our land. They block messages, redline communities, and use the faces of our peopleand public dollars to do it- all with the promise of future investment. A promise that has gone unrealized for more than forty years. And so it is with awe and great humility that I report to you, we are winning.
Right now, these rules are being fought over tooth and nail in the DC beltway. A small band of progressive public interest groups have been joined by a larger movement of community organizing groups, media and cultural groups, and service organizations to fight for the Internet freedom of our communities.
We are gaining focus and fire, in no small part due to the fact that despite the millions of dollars being thrown around, despite the three hundred lobbyists to our one- there are champions among us.