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No ceiling on our right to be heard: people of color and allies mobilize for net neutrality

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Photo by Center for Media Justice

After making the 500-mile journey from Harat to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, twice, to request permission to compete in an international robotics competition to be held in Washington, D.C., this month, the six teenage girls of Afghanistan’s robotics team were denied entry into the U.S. Without the open Internet, this story, and so many like it, may have never been heard.

Banning and denying visas is one way the Trump administration continues to deprive the U.S. of the global brilliance of women and girls of color; attempting to marginalize their voices online is another. For women of means, of racial privilege, being heard above the drone of toxic masculinity is already a challenge. The voices of women of color are already disproportionately excluded from mainstream cable media, and fewer than 3 percent of television outlets are owned by people of color. For women and girls of color, especially those who are queer, trans, or gender nonconforming, the situation is especially dire, since the open Internet can be all that stands between managing violence and discrimination in utter isolation and finding safety in being connected to a larger community. For some, the open Internet is all that stands between violence and safety, between life and death.

Trump’s Federal Communications Commission has already begun efforts to repeal previously hard-won network neutrality rules and allow Internet Service Providers to replace First Amendment protections with whatever the market can bear, for the maximum amount of profit.

You already know this, but I’ll remind you anyway: Net neutrality is the set of rules that prevent Internet Service Providers from discriminating against web platforms, content, and users on the basis of price, ideas, or location. These rules were passed after four million people made their voices heard in the historic battle against big telecom in support of the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order. Right now, these strong rules are getting ambushed by the Republican-led FCC, industry lobbyists in Congress, and the Trump administration.

For some, this fight appears to be between little companies and big companies, between businesses that were born online and businesses that want to profit from the restructuring of the Internet. But, for communities of color whose businesses, cultural products and shows, organizations and movements were launched or amplified online, this is a fight to ensure that our digital voice can continue to translate into political power and economic opportunity. If Trump’s FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, has his way, the voice that can pay the most will be the one that gets to be heard. It won’t be yours, or mine.

Just as developers are buying up the physical land where we raise our families, transforming the neighborhoods we’ve lived in for generations into places we can’t recognize or afford, the cable industry seeks to do the same to the virtual community that is the Internet. The digital displacement of vulnerable and dissenting voices will be easier than ever if net neutrality rules are repealed. We can’t let that happen.

When ordinary people are able to upload shocking video footage of police officers fatally shooting black citizens to a wide audience, or use the Internet to hold power to account—this is one face of democracy that Trump’s FCC seeks to repeal. From the Internet video of the vicious killing of a Black man, Philando Castille, in his own car as he reached for his license, to the hopeful images of righteous rebellion in urban centers and mass protests at Standing Rock—people of color are using the emergent technology of the open Internet to confront inequality and demand justice.

Whether it is the Black Lives Matter Global Network and the Women’s March in D.C., or the young Chicago activists camping in for peace and immigrant rights and Muslim activists protesting the virtual border—the voices of people of color online are loud and clear. We have no intention of allowing our Internet to look like cable TV: a bastion of white, middle-class, and male voices that shout us down daily.

Instead, today, on July 12, communities of color organized by the Center for Media Justice, Color of Change, and others are joining forces with groups like Fight for the Future, Free Press, Demand Progress, and dozens of Internet start-up companies and celebrities for a national day of action to urge the FCC to enforce the Title II Net Neutrality rules passed in 2015.

Organizations like Generation Justice in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and dozens of others in the Media Action Grassroots Network will visit members of Congress to urge them to champion the FCC’s existing net neutrality rules. Just like in 2015, the people will speak—and because of an open Internet, they will be heard.

The question is whether FCC Chairman Ajit Pai will listen. His response will demonstrate clearly whether Pai is Trump’s FCC Chairman or America’s—they are not one and the same. Pai has ignored the 2016 U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia’s ruling that clearly stated that Title II is the legal grounding needed to enforce net neutrality. He ignored the four million comments in support of keeping the Internet open in the face of an encroaching industry using Title II net neutrality. He ignored the studies that show businesses continue to thrive since the 2015 order was adopted.

The courts have spoken. The people have spoken. The FCC’s 2015 Open Internet rules are the best defense women and all communities of color have against the increasing rise of a violent, authoritarian state. Our digital voice is a cause worth fighting for, one that will not be denied.

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