By Joseph Torres and Malkia Cyril

Our nation’s Internet freedom is under attack — and the consequences for communities of color couldn’t be greater.

The revelations that the NSA is spying on Americans — with the help of tech and broadband companies — should frighten anyone fighting for racial justice. After all, our nation has a long and shameful history of using surveillance to disrupt racial and social justice movements.

Just as scary are the moves from profit-hungry broadband providers to interfere with and censor our Web traffic. This behavior is even more disturbing when you consider how critical the open Internet is for mobilizing dissent, closing the racial-wealth gap and providing a platform for our stories that can counter the racial stereotypes found in so much mainstream media.

A federal court heard oral arguments on Monday in a lawsuit brought by Verizon that seeks to overturn the Open Internet order the Federal Communications Commission passed in 2010. Open Internet advocates had challenged the FCC to pass strong Net Neutrality protections that barred Internet service providers from blocking or discriminating against any online content. The Commission, however, attempted to placate the industry by approving watered-down rules. But Verizon wasn’t satisfied and wants to gut the Net Neutrality protections altogether.

In court filings, Verizon argued it has the right to edit our online free speech and compared the function of broadband providers to the role of newspaper publishers. “Just as a newspaper is entitled to decide which content to publish and where,” Verizon wrote, “broadband providers may feature some content over others.”

What will happen if Verizon prevails in overturning the Net Neutrality rules? Internet service providers — including those that have colluded with the government to spy on us — will have the power to silence dissident voices fighting injustice and inequality.

To protect the digital rights of communities of color, Free Press and the Center for Media Justice, along with ColorOfChange and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, recently launched Voices for Internet Freedom.

Voices is a network of organizations advocating for communities of color in the fight to protect Internet freedom from corporate and government discrimination. We’re fighting to ensure the Internet remains an open and nondiscriminatory platform for free speech and assembly.

Protecting the open Internet is essential to the struggle for racial justice. It allows us to tell our own stories and counter racist stereotypes promulgated in the media. It gives us the opportunity to educate, defend and represent ourselves — in our own voices.

An open Internet is also essential to building wealth in our communities — rather than having our labor exploited to create wealth for others.

Millions of small businesses owned by people of color use the open Internet to compete against large corporations. But broadband companies want to implement a pay-for-play system that would give preferential treatment to those who can pay big bucks for speedy access to their websites and online services.

Meanwhile, sites for small businesses — including those owned by people of color — would be stuck in the slow lane, unable to compete.

These predatory practices are great for big companies — but create serious obstacles for everyone else. Our communities can’t afford another obstacle to opportunity.

And when there’s no longer a level playing field online, it’s harder for dissident voices fighting for social justice to be heard.

Dissident voices revealed the NSA was spying on us with the help of telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon, and tech companies like Facebook and Google. These revelations should alarm racial justice activists given how government surveillance has historically targeted communities of color.

The FBI’s counterintelligence program, created in the 1950s, often wiretapped phones to discredit the civil rights and black power movements. And these strategies aren’t relics of the past: After the Sept. 11 attacks, the New York City Police Department created a secret surveillance program that targets the local Muslim community.

Our government’s decision to work closely with ISPs to spy on U.S. residents is troubling, and underscores the need for rules that protect free speech online.

If Verizon wins in court, one has to wonder how hard the government will fight to protect free speech online, given that the same companies lobbying to gut open Internet protections are essential to our nation’s domestic spying apparatus.

We launched Voices for Internet Freedom to protect the digital rights of communities of color. We’re fighting to ensure the Internet remains an open and nondiscriminatory platform for free speech and assembly.

There’s simply too much at stake for our communities.

Will you join us?

Joseph Torres is the senior external affairs director for Free Press. Malkia Cyril is the executive director of the Center for Media Justice.

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