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Category: Politics

In a Digital Age, Feminism Demands an Open Internet

| February 24, 2015

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Caption: Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, speaking at the NetGain conference.

In just a few days, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on whether to preserve an open Internet with strong network neutrality rules, or turn the Internet over to corporate providers who’d prefer an online environment that looks more like cable, where the corporate bottom line trumps free speech, every time.

Net neutrality, the set of open Internet rules that protect free speech and access online, was overturned last year by a DC circuit court. That court told Verizon and the FCC, the parties in the case, that the only way to enforce net neutrality rules would be to reclassify the Internet as a common carrier under Title II of the Communications Act. Reclassifying broadband would give the FCC the authority it needs to enforce net neutrality, keeping all information just one click away, rather than placing those who can pay in an information fast lane, and relegating those who can’t to sub-par speeds, where their information is harder to access by users. Internet service providers hate this model, because discriminating for profit is a lucrative business. Reclassifying broadband would subject these companies to rules that keep the Internet a level playing field.

As Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable deploy an army of DC lobbyists in a last-ditch effort to derail the more than 12-months-long process poised to end in the strongest net neutrality protections ever proposed, women from all walks of life are speaking out in favor of an Internet that elevates their public voice, and does not discriminate against them. The women of Black Lives Matter are among those voices. For them, the birth of one of the most powerful movements for Black dignity and freedom was made possible, in part, because the Internet allows everyone to access all information at the same speed, regardless of race, gender, or ability to pay. Without net neutrality, the Black Lives Matter movement may be relegated to the back of the digital bus.

While entertainment icons like Oprah Winfrey and self-proclaimed civil rights “leaders” like Al Sharpton decry the emerging Black Lives Matter Movement as leaderless, the national movement against what many call the extra-judicial murders of Black people by police officers is being propelled by Black women, queer people, and transgender communities. In the emerging movement for rights, dignity, and power, all Black lives matter. This marks a radical departure from the visibly male-centric civil rights leadership of the 1960s.

Last week, Alicia Garza, one of the three Black women who co-founded Black Lives Matter as a call to action and a response to the virulent police brutality plaguing Black communities, stood in front of an audience at NetGain, a conference focused on building partnerships for a stronger digital society, to explain why a movement for Black lives demands an open Internet.

“Black Lives Matter is much more than a hashtag—it is an organizing principle,” she told the audience of technologists and tech policy advocates. “It’s more than a moment, it’s a movement for Black lives. An open Internet creates the space for movements to emerge off-line. But, as we know, there is a power struggle over the open Internet that is occurring today, where police and corporations are teaming up to surveil communities. What’s important for us to know is that these tools further criminalize Black lives, are largely ineffective, and threaten an open Internet. That’s why we need to preserve an open Internet that allows for connection and access… in the service of organizing and power-building off-line. We’ll know that Black Lives Matter when we all have access to digital spaces that create open spaces, work for all of us, and do not criminalize us.”

In the weeks prior to Garza’s powerful remarks, Opal Tometi, another Black Lives Matter co-founder, testified before the FCC about how the open Internet helped her organization, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, win thousands of new visas for Haitian families. “It was when we began using the open Internet that we were able to come into direct contact with our audiences, increase the scale of our reach, and win our demands.”

In an article in the Hill, the third co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Cullors, spoke about the power of an open Internet to galvanize new voices, frame issues, and raise the visibility of issues that might otherwise be obscured. “Black Twitter broke the story of the murder of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri by police officer Daren Wilson, while consolidated broadcast and cable industries lagged behind. From unarmed Black father John Crawford, murdered by police in an Ohio Walmart, to Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a Black 7-year-old murdered by police while she slept in her home—the open Internet allowed Black communities to tell these stories with our own voices.”

Fifty years ago, the civil rights movement was forced to rely on mostly White and male broadcast gatekeepers to mediate the story of Jim Crow segregation and the fight against it. Today, the movement against a new Jim Crow criminal justice system has the opportunity to bypass those corporate gatekeepers and speak directly to their audiences, without mediators. As a result, instead of the leaderless movement portrayed by Winfrey and Sharpton, there are more leaders than ever before. Today’s movement for Black lives is as decentralized as the platform that gives it voice, and for Garza, Cullors, and Tometi, that’s something worth fighting for.

The women of Etsy, Bitch Media, Feministing.com, the Women’s Media Center, and many other online platforms have spoken out as well for the preservation of an open Internet. Why are so many women concerned about expanding corporate control over the Internet?

Maybe it’s because women remain under-employed, misrepresented, and sidelined in mainstream cable and other mainstream media. The problem gets worse when examining coverage of women of color. When women of color are misrepresented in mass media, the resulting effect on public policy, and the direct impacts to women’s economic conditions and their very lives, are devastating.

More than one in seven women—nearly 18 million—lived in poverty in 2013, with women of color earning less than men of the same race and White women. African American women earned 64 cents to every White man’s dollar, and Latina women earned even less—54 cents. This racial and gendered wealth gap is accompanied by fewer benefits, less security, and less flexible working hours, leading to a rise in poverty rates among women of color and their families.

These economic conditions have other consequences. For women in the low-wage workforce, approximately two thirds of whom are women of color, the time and cost of acquiring a photo ID are prohibitive. In the context of restrictive voter ID laws, this reality denies these women their right to vote. In North Carolina, while Black women represented less than 24 percent of all women registered to vote in the state in 2012, they made up more than 34 percent of the registered women voters who didn’t have the necessary photo ID. Just as poverty creates a need for the strongest possible protections to the rights of women of color, and all people, to vote, it also necessitates the strongest protections available to women’s voices online.

More Americans get their news from online sources than from the radio or TV, so any rules that make the voices of women more than one click away from audiences will unduly threaten the ability of women, especially Black women and other women of color, to speak powerfully for themselves.

Right now, most women cannot own a cable outlet, but can own a website. Without the strongest possible net neutrality protections, and a consumer agency empowered to enforce those protections, the Internet becomes as discriminatory as the cable industry, stratified by ability to pay and by racial hierarchy.

That’s why, across the nation, women of the Media Action Grassroots Network, in partnership with organizations like Colorofchange.org, Presente.org, 18MillionRising.org, National Hispanic Media Coalition, Demand Progress, Free Press, Fight for the Future, and many others are taking action almost every day during the week leading up to the FCC’s vote in a campaign targeting internet service providers called #DontBlockMyInternet.

In a media environment organized around corporate gatekeepers, where decision makers remain mostly White and male, the need for an Internet that is open, fast, and fair is greater than ever before.

In the 21st century, depending on the degree to which the Internet is democratized, the Internet can be where movements led by women of color are born, or it can be where those movements die. Thank goodness, for all our sakes, women are not only holding up half the sky, but also building an intersectional movement to defend their right to connect and communicate—because an open Internet is, in part, what 21st-century feminism looks like.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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