As part of the Infrastructure, Investments and Jobs Act, the FCC was tasked with creating rules to define and remedy digital discrimination. Much of the conversation amongst advocates, the FCC and the Digital Discrimination Task Force seemed overly focused on figuring out how to define intention versus impact, how to identify when discriminatory impacts couldn’t be reasoned away by arguments of economic feasibility, and what punishment should look like for those who were found to discriminate.
Certainly important questions. However, we also knew that the task force at the FCC studying the questions of digital discrimination, watered down from the earlier and clearer legislative language of Digital Redlining, was not hearing as much from actual communities clearly positioned on the wrong side of the digital divide wanted to see – and were already doing – for solutions to unquestionable and enduring systemic discrimination. So we gathered as a group of MediaJustice Network members and allies of the Network to meet with the task force and make sure as they were advising the FCC on the rulemaking, that they heard from communities about what they actually wanted to see. Not punishment, but accountability and repair. Not discriminatory large corporate ISPs being forced to unwillingly build out networks to our neighborhoods who have been ignored by them for far too long, but resources for communities to build out their own community-based and locally accountable solutions.
After meeting with the task force and finding great interest in the group’s perspective, we also wanted to make sure to contribute public comments to the process outlining our shared vision for a reparatory framework rooted in principled community solutions. Below, you will find our collective letter authored by Community Tech New York, The Hunt’s Point Community Network at THE POINT CDC, the Equitable Internet Initiative at the Detroit Community Technology Project, the Greenlining Institute, the Center for Race and Digital Justice, Community Networks program at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and MediaJustice. These comments were also supported by MediaJustice Network members: Access Humboldt, Aspiration Tech, CreaTV San José, the Center for Rural Strategies, the Community Alliance for Global Justice, KRSM Radio, May First Movement Technology, the Progressive Technology Project, the SouthWest Organizing Project and the United Church of Christ’s Media Justice Ministry.
RE: Notice of ex parte filing regarding Implementing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: Prevention and Elimination of Digital Discrimintion GN Docket No. 22-69
The authors and collaborators of this letter come to you with declarations informed by our work in communities all across the United States. Our approach is to organize and mobilize groups based in disenfranchised communities that work on the front lines of social change. The digital discrimination task force must approach digital justice with an understanding of the ways that racial justice is fundamentally integrated into this issue. Measures to combat digital discrimination will not promote justice unless they simultaneously and actively contend with racial justice. In this letter, we introduce a principles-driven and evidence-based approach to broadband, which focuses on building trusted relationships, allowing communities to own infrastructure, build capacity, and experiment with solutions, and allowing for community-driven decision-making and knowledge-building. We present a series of examples of our own work in digital justice to demonstrate how this approach might be carried out.
Historically, FCC policies have built and sustained structural racism. As members of the network and authors and collaborators of this letter, we come to you with declarations informed by our work in communities all across the United States. From the Black, industrial bellwether of Detroit, to the glorious mountain ranges of Appalachia, the vibrant and bustling streets of the South Bronx, and the vast and wondrous land diversity of Texas and California, we are committed both to investigating the practices of exclusion and monopolistic power that are built into the provision of broadband and stewarding our people to build capacity for something better.
Across geographies, communities with a variety of identities have been working at the local, state, and national level for connected communities, and we are deeply involved in this work. Through principled collaborations between Community Tech New York, The Equitable Internet Initiative, and The Point Community Development Corporation (THE POINT CDC), we have roused a desire for community-owned broadband infrastructure in Black and Brown neighborhoods in New York and Detroit and built capacity for digital stewardship in those communities. At The Greenlining Institute and the Center on Race and Digital Justice we have pushed public policy and developed crucial research on the Internet, media, and technology’s impact on communities of color. MediaJustice, which houses a national network of digital and media justice organizations, has led and supported convenings that challenge how the Internet is used to further exploit historically oppressed people. Our constituencies are large, our methods are tested, and our relationships are strong.
As a collective of organizations deeply engaged and invested in this work, we approach this letter with the understanding that digital disrimination is real. The scars of this discrimination originate among the early days of legacy telecommunications companies, the policies they adopted and codified, and the racist redlining that has disproportionately impacted communities of color. Nearly half of all people in the United States without home-internet access are people of color. The lives of Black and Brown people will forever be informed in some large or small way by practices of digital redlining and other exclusionary decisions of the past. For instance, Black teenagers are almost 2x as likely to report that they can’t complete their homework due to lack of a computer or reliable internet. This is only exacerbated by 73% of large school districts going fully online during the pandemic.
As the Task Force appointed to address digital discrimination, you will have the critical responsibility to contend with the racist policy decisions of the past. Fortunately, there is also a long legacy of collective power building within the realm of digital inclusion, which is informed by racial justice and environmental justice. Grassroots efforts like the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, Demystifying Technology fairs, community-based curriculums and years of documentation and knowledge-sharing are just a few examples of this work.
Witnessing and experiencing the dichotomy in digital access created by the digital divide has made one thing incredibly clear: challenging digital discrimination cannot be solely concerned with giving more Black, Brown, tribal, and people in rural areas broadband run by large corporations just to increase their upload and download speeds. In fact, this approach simply exposes our people to more data surveillance and dependency.
Our work shows the success of alternative approaches to increasing digital access by centering people’s needs and empowerment rather than speeds and companies’ profits. For example, the Equitable Internet Initiative and Hunts Point Community Network (HPCN) exist as two tested examples of what local ISPs could be and the potential they have to support connectivity and relationships amongst their people. Via the HPCN, THE POINT CDC has offered the Hunts Point peninsula a resilient internet connection to use before, during, and after a climate emergency. Working in partnership with city agencies, small businesses, & residents of all ages since 2016, the HPCN has trained over 300 local residents as Digital Stewards (who learn the basics of installing and maintaining a network), connects over 2000 individuals users per week, and currently offers 4 full time paid employment opportunities for local residents.
Another example of an alternative approach is how the Greenlining Institute has worked with the City of Oakland on the Town Link, a program that aims to close the digital divide over the past year. Key to the Town Link is a partnership with ten Oakland community-based organizations to provide free digital literacy classes and laptops, collect data on internet access, and sign people up for affordable internet benefits such as the Affordability Connectivity Program (ACP). Before the ACP program, the NTIA proved the essential role community partnerships play in the success of connecting communities. Town Link highlights the importance of community knowledge and trusted relationships in connecting people to programs like ACP. The application and selection process for the Town Link digital inclusion program was streamlined and simple, moreover this program sought out trusted messengers that had strong connections to low-adoption communities; this included faith-based organizations, health clinics, senior centers, community centers, workforce training organizations and more. We then trained their staff on programs like ACP and how to best recruit and sign people up for internet access or digital literacy classes. Partner organizations could then tap into their existing relationships with the Oakland community to identify individuals that could benefit from Town Link’s digital inclusion resources.
The Greenlining Institute’s work on the Town Link highlights the benefits in a simplified application process for grassroots organizations and investing in trusted messengers as a more effective way to connect digitally disconnected community members to the internet. Where the Commission identifies digital discrimination in a community, it should direct greater funding for these types of programs to that community. Beyond digital inclusion programs, the Commission must work to reduce barriers to affordability and increase service quality in areas that face digital discrimination. This can include mandating access to incumbent poles and networks at fair rates where there is digital discrimination or alternatively increasing federal funds available for open access networks or community broadband which can increase competition, improve service quality and lower prices – making it easier for communities impacted by digital discrimination to get connected.
Any effort to rid our country of any form of discrimination must be understood as a long-term pursuit. Uprooting the deep fibers of digital discrimination in our cities and neighborhoods is a long game and will require sustained work into the future. In many ways, repairing wounds of digital exclusion and exploitation exists as the antithesis of cultures that allow Big Tech, Big Cable and Big Telecom to maintain their positions of power through market dominance and political capture. Look at what we have accomplished with so few resources. Imagine what we could do with all of the federal dollars that large ISPs have squandered away with broken promises. Instead of immediacy, our people need the patience and space for collaboration necessary to experiment with what works and build capacity. Instead of dependency, our people need the incentive to become collectively self-determined. Instead of exposure to unchecked surveillance, data extraction, and disinformation, our people need protections, both political and material. Any orientation toward immediate solutions, are not made with our people in mind.
We understand the work of digital justice as necessary and integral to the process of reclaiming power for under-resourced communities and people of color under attack from the infrastructures they are meant to depend on. Whether by predatory predictive policing algorithms, facial recognition software, or other tracking technologies, we are progressively losing ground in our communities. Our collective visions for the neighborhoods we grew up in and the trusted bonds we have established could all be usurped by smart city initiatives, dreamt up by Big Tech. In order to exercise our collective agency, we must have some stake in our neighborhoods. Owning our means of communications and establishing local ISPs allows us to craft community broadband infrastructure based on our own cultural understandings and needs and not that of Verizon, Comcast, and the like. If there is anyone that stands to gain from the circulation of our data and identities, let it be us. We will decide what gets shared publicly and with whom. Anything else is undignified and exploitative.
The undersigned collaborators and co-authors.Community Tech New York (CTNY)
Equitable Internet Initiative at the Detroit Community Technology Project (EII @ DCTP)
The Hunts Point Community Network a project of The Point Community Development Corporation (HPCN @ THE POINT CDC)
Center on Race and Digital Justice
The Greenlining Institute
Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance
MediaJustice and the MediaJustice Network
CC: D’wana Terry
Sanford S. Williams
Additional Public Interest and Community Organizations in Support:
Monique Harper-Desir and Sean Taketa McLaughlin and Access Humboldt
Allen Gunn – Aspiration Tech
Chad Johnston – CreaTV San José
Marty Newell – Center for Rural Strategies
Heather Day – Community Alliance for Global Justice
Andrea Pierre – KRSM Radio
Jamie McClelland – May First Movement Technology
Alice Aguilar – Progressive Technology Project
Mikyle Gray – SouthWest Organizing Project
Cheryl Leanza – United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry