Last week, while pundits were debating whether crashing web servers at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) were hit by hackers or simply by a flood of public comments following another viral segment on net neutrality by TV comedian John Oliver, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn was on her way to a forum in Los Angeles. There she heard from advocate Sylvia Hernandez and others who are often left out of the beltway's tech policy narratives.
"I wouldn't have even found [a homeless] shelter, if it hadn't been for the internet," said Hernandez, who was able to access the internet at local libraries and is currently housed.
Hernan Galperin, a communications professor at the University of Southern California who maps the digital divide in Los Angeles County, told Clyburn that broadband adoption among the city's white residents is 20 percent higher than it is for Black and Latinx residents. Lack of competition among providers is to blame for high costs, he said.
Fifth-grade teacher Melissa Baranic said some of her students come from families that can't afford internet service at home, putting them at a clear educational disadvantage.
"The digital divide is based on income," Baranic said.
The forum was organized by a number of groups working at the intersection of digital access and racial and economic justice. While lawmakers and policy wonks debate whether the FCC should be in the business of regulating internet service providers, such as Cox and AT&T, these groups have framed the conversation around the "digital divide" between the privileged and the underserved.
"This event helped to provide a face to an often unseen reality of an internet and phone service whose cost is just too high," said Steven Renderos, organizing director at the Center for Media Justice, while speaking at the forum.
Clyburn, a former manager of an African-American newspaper in South Carolina, is the lone Democrat on the FCC, where Chairman Ajit Pai and another Republican enjoy a 2-1 majority. Two seats formerly held by Democrats are vacant, and the Trump presidency ensures a Republican majority for the near future.
Pai has pledged to roll out a plan for repealing the agency's net neutrality rules at a commission meeting on Thursday. Renderos said communities of color and poor communities have "absolutely everything to lose" if he is successful in rolling them back.
Net Neutrality and Digital Justice
In 2015, the FCC declared the internet a "common carrier," allowing the agency to regulate the broadband services at companies like AT&T and Verizon more like utilities, such as landline telephone service, that everyone needs to use, as opposed to a luxury product for those who can afford it. This allows the FCC to enforce net neutrality rules designed to keep providers from blocking or slowing access to parts of the internet and charging wealthy web companies fees for priority access to consumers.
Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, an Obama appointee, was skeptical about common carrier reclassification at first, but millions of public comments, fueled in part by digital activists back in 2014, convinced both the White House and Wheeler to get on board. In January, 2015, Wheeler attended a town hall with low-income customers, people of color and people with disabilities, much like the forum that hosted Clyburn last week. The FCC voted 3-2 to reclassify the internet as a common carrier under Title II of the Communications Act about a month later.
The cable broadband industry was furious but lucked out when Donald Trump won the presidency and nominated Pai to the position of FCC chairman. Pai has a track record of siding with the industry and his deregulatory agenda fits squarely into Trump's, and he's already dragging the FCC back.
Advocates say the net neutrality rules, along with other Obama-era reforms that Pai and Republicans in Congress have put on the chopping block, are crucial for ensuring that people living in the margins can access the internet and other communication technology. Without this access, low-income consumers have trouble getting ahead at work and in school and lose opportunities for cultural expression and political participation.
"[The internet is] how we get our medical records and culturally relevant mental-health services, it's how we stay in touch with loved ones, it's a way for artists of color to bypass traditional gatekeepers and tell our own stories in our own way, and it's been our town square in the movement for our lives and our dignity," said Brandi Collins, campaign director at Color Of Change, a civil rights group that organizes online.
Net neutrality means wireline internet providers must allow their customers to access all legal websites at the same relative speeds they pay for, preventing low-income consumers from being blocked from certain sites and services because they can't afford premium fees. However, much of the net neutrality conversation has revolved around Silicon Valley, where web firms fear that broadband companies would make it hard for startups to compete with giants like Google and Netflix by charging special fees to reach users faster.
The broadband industry, wary of the regulatory requirements placed on common carriers, claims it would never do such things. Internet providers want to get back under the purview of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which can take companies to court if they violate terms of service or federal anti-trust laws. Returning oversight to the FTC is exactly what Pai has set out to do, arguing that such "light touch" regulation is best for the industry and consumers.
Digital justice activists don't trust the industry and don't want to wait for future violations to spur the FTC into action, pointing to a list of examples where companies have already violated net neutrality principles. The FCC makes decisions with plenty of public input, and activists and consumer advocates want watchdogs like Clyburn on their side if broadband companies start shaping the internet to maximize their own profit margins.
Pai says that he also wants to bridge the digital divide, but his vision for doing so sounds a lot like classic Republican trickle-down economics. He argues that the burden of common-carrier regulations prevents investment in infrastructure development, slowing the expansion of physical wirelines that can benefit rural, low-income and other underserved communities. He points out that even small internet providers structured like public utility companies complain about the net neutrality rules.
Digital justice groups doubt Pai's dedication to consumers in the margins, especially since he began scrapping Obama-era reforms designed to make it easier for providers to participate in the Lifeline program, which provides internet service to more than 3.5 million low-income customers at a subsidized price. They also say broadband companies are doing just fine as common carriers, and lags in infrastructure investment can be blamed on other factors.
"If investment is the FCC's preferred metric, then there's only one possible conclusion: Net neutrality and Title II are smashing successes," said S. Derek Turner, a research director at the digital rights group Free Press, in a statement on Monday.
Turner and Free Press released a report on Monday showing that total capital investments among internet service providers increased by 5 percent in the two years since the FCC's net neutrality vote. The report, which is based on financial disclosures and statements to investors, concludes that any decline in infrastructure investment can be blamed on the cost of upgrades to technology and equipment that providers incur on a "cyclical" basis.
Unleashing the Wrath of the Internet
Clyburn can't stop Pai on her own, but activists have promised to unleash the wrath of internet users on anyone who messes with net neutrality. More than 1.6 million public comments on the subject have already been filed with the FCC, and many more are expected to come in as Pai puts his repeal proposal through the rulemaking process. There may be a debate over how many of those comments are authentic appeals to save the rules, but digital justice activists are confident that the majority of consumers are on their side.
After all, big internet service providers, such as Comcast and Verizon, enjoy little competition in many markets, and the industry consistently ranks at the very bottom of the American Customer Satisfaction Index. For the average consumer, preserving net neutrality at the FCC could provide a higher degree of leverage over the monolithic companies that send a bill in the mail each month. For those living in the margins, it could mean the difference between staying connected and falling even further behind.