Supporting Net Neutrality, the practice of keeping the internet accessible, open, and competitive for all comers, not just those who can afford to pay a premium for access, would seem to be a no-brainer for traditional civil rights organizations and their constituencies.

However, counterintuitive as it may be, both the NAACP and the Urban League have thrown their support behind big telecoms when it comes to the current fight over Net Neutrality, which is problematic because this is a fight to determine whose voices will be heard in a marketplace with fewer players and fewer real choices.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act was responsible for a precipitous drop in Black-owned media and in the diversity of voices in the public sphere.  A June 2012 article in the Grio, titled Black media groups confront the FCC on the ‘demise of black radio, stated:

Black radio ownership and voices have been spiraling backwards since the Telecomm Act of 1996,” Paul Porter, the co-founder of media watchdog Industry Ears, told theGrio. “It’s time for the FCC to take a serious look and right the wrong of the muted mess we call Black radio today.”1

While conditions in the traditional Black media sphere have continued to worsen, a free, fair and open internet could help mitigate some of the effects of media consolidation by providing more democratic opportunities. The fight for an open internet is where the seams of more traditional civil rights organizations and a newer crop of social justice activists come apart.

The Digital Divide—the gap between the information rich and information poor—is the subject of much discussion. To bridge some racial distortions in the use and adoption of the internet, the federal government as developed programs in conjunction with major telecoms and internet service providers, such as AT&T, Verizon and others, which (for a limited time) offer low-cost internet to low income communities. However, regardless of how helpful these programs are, there is still much to be done.

While there is consensus that the digital information gap has narrowed somewhat, there are still large differences in the way African Americans and others access and use the internet.

In 2015, Black Enterprise Magazine wrote an article on a Pew Research Report, which found that the use of high speed internet access had declined in African American homes by eight percent in the two previous years (2013-2014) from 62 percent to 54 percent.2

This reversal of adaptation (internet use) unsurprisingly corresponded with a decline in Black wealth since the beginning of the Great Recession.  According to a June 2015 article in Business Insider, the recession was “… much, much worse for African Americans.” In part because home equity, as a percentage, is a larger share of African American wealth than that of other races, and Blacks’ remaining wealth has recovered at much slower rates than that of White homeowners, for structural and historical reasons.3

This decline in wealth presents itself in a reduced ability to pay for goods and services.  When discussing the decline of high-speed internet use in African American homes in 2015, a Black Enterprise Magazine article written by Samara Lynn stated:

Economics and smartphone use are two main contributing factors. Homes with income levels from $20,000 to $75,000 per year were dropping high-speed Internet service at consistent rates, but households with lower incomes were more likely to move to mobile-only Internet access.4

A 2015 Pew Research study also found that Black people with children were more likely to have mobile-only internet service, and that 13 percent of Black homes were mobile-data dependent. The cost of high speed internet access was the main barrier to at-home service.5

In an article on the Fact Tank Blog “Racial and ethnic differences in how people use mobile technology,” Monica Anderson stated that African Americans and Latinos are more likely to utilize smartphones to gain access to health and educational information, as well as job-seeking services. 7

How the internet is accessed is important for several reasons, since mobile users can encounter data limits and mobile wireless connections are less reliable for higher educational applications, such as distance learning websites. It is therefore difficult to reconcile Black people’s position relative to the Digital Divide and the way our traditional civil rights organizations have lined up in the fight for Net Neutrality.

In a February 2017 article entitled Civil Rights Groups Funded by Telecoms Back Donald Trump’s Plan to Kill Net Neutrality, Lee Fang stated:

Leading civil rights groups, who for many years have been heavily bankrolled by the telecom industry, are signaling their support for Donald Trump’s promised roll-back of the Obama Administration’s Net Neutrality rules, which prevent internet service providers from prioritizing some content providers over others.

The Obama Administration’s Federal Communications Commission established net neutrality by re-classifying high-speed internet as a regulated phone-like telecommunications service, as opposed to a mostly unregulated information service. The re-classification was cheered by advocates for a free and open internet.

Instead of supporting the Obama Administration’s FCC ruling, which treats internet providers like utilities, what we see is organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League advocating for the creation of Net Neutrality by law, which will give lobbyists a say in what could be a weaker process.

Since the Obama Administration’s FCC decision, little has changed that would make the NAACP and the Urban League’s support for the roll-back of Net Neutrality rules line up with their stated priorities. At a time when local voices and concerns are increasingly muted, and more traditional Civil Rights organizations are having a difficult time attracting younger members, they should remember that many battles are lost before they begin. If net neutrality is lost, future civil rights battles will be fought on an internet ground which will bifurcate into a space for virtual haves and virtual have-nots, and African-Americans will likely be pushed into the latter.A special thank you to P.K. Wil for her contributions to this story. 

Lynn, Samara. “Report Shows Drop in High-Speed Internet Rates in African American Homes.” Black Enterprise Mobile. Black Enterprise Magazine. 23, Dec. 2015. Web. 1, Aug. 2017.

Ferro, Shane. “The Great Recession Was Much, Much Worse for African-Americans. “Business Insider. Business Insider Inc. 24, Jun. 2015. Web. 1, Aug.  2017.

Lynn, Samara. “Report Shows Drop in High-Speed Internet Rates in African American Homes.” Black Enterprise Mobile. Black Enterprise Magazine.  23, Dec. 2015. Web. 1, Aug.  2017.

Anderson, Monica.  “Racial and ethnic differences in how people use mobile technology.” Fact Tank Blog. Pew Research Institute.  2015. Web. 29, Jul.  2017.

Fang, Lee. “Civil Rights Groups Funded by Telecoms Back Donald Trump’s Plan to Kill Net Neutrality.” The Intercept. The Intercept.  12, Feb. 2017. Web. 29, Jul. 2017.