net neutrality

Why Net Neutrality Matters for Social Justice Work

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Amber Hathaway

I am a physics graduate student, campus organizer, aspiring horror writer, crafter, and amateur genealogist from Maine

On December 14th, 2017, the FCC will vote on whether to repeal Obama era net neutrality protections. These changes were proposed by the current FCC chair Ajit Pai, who previously worked as a lawyer for Verizon. There is a good chance that the FCC will vote in favor of the repeal. If it does, online social justice work could face serious challenges.

Net neutrality ensures that internet service providers (ISPs) cannot control what portions of the internet users have access to. There are two major issues that losing net neutrality poses for social justice work online: internet fast and slow lanes and censorship. Without net neutrality, ISPs would have the ability to allow preferred sites to run faster, while slowing down other sites. Big companies with a lot of capital will be able to pay ISPs for preferred treatment, while smaller sites will have no leverage and thus may be slowed down. Feminist and social justice sites tend to generate less revenue, so accessing these sites could be more difficult without net neutrality.

Before the official FCC ruling in 2015, ISPs and telecommunication companies slowed down or blocked certain sites on several occasions to boost their own revenues. In 2012, Comcast came under fire for placing data caps Netflix and other video sites that were in competition with its Xfinity TV service. No caps were placed on data usage for Xfinity.  During that same year, a complaint was filed against AT&T for restricting the use of FaceTime to clients with shared data plans.

Censorship is another issue that the loss of net neutrality could pose. An ISP could slow down or block sites that go against the company’s ideology. Telecoms have censored certain content in the past. In 2007, AT&T censored two lyrics in a Pearl Jam webcast that it offered through its streaming service Blue Room. The lyrics were critical of then-President George W. Bush. AT&T claimed that the censorship was a mistake, but mistaken or not, the lyrics were censored.

Telus, a telecom company based in Canada, blocked subscribers from accessing a website supporting striking members of Telecommunications Workers Union. The workers were striking against Telus over the contract that Telus wanted to impose. Telus blocked access to the site by cutting off access to the server hosting the site, thus blocking the 766 unrelated sites hosted by the same server. Telus later restored access, although it claimed that its service agreement allows it to block any website.

In 2007, Verizon blocked NARAL Pro-Choice America from using their service for a text messaging program. NARAL applied to set up a five digit short-link that people could message to sign up to receive NARAL’s texts. Verizon refused and claimed that it was within their right to censor “controversial” messages.

While Verizon eventually reversed course, this action shows the danger of allowing telecoms and ISPs to dictate what content users have access to. Social justice issues are often viewed as controversial by segments of the population. Allowing these companies to censor what they deem controversial could pose significant challenges to online social justice work.

For example, a company might choose to block websites devoted to reproductive justice, LGBTQ+ rights, Black Lives Matter, or other issues which the company deems controversial or distasteful. This could prevent people from learning about these issues, from accessing services, or from connecting with other people who are involved in these movements. If an ISP had an anti-choice bent, it could block websites for abortion providers while leaving crisis pregnancy center sites unrestricted and accessible to everyone, thus making it harder for pregnant people to access abortion care. An ISP could block petitions that it finds objectionable or fundraising sites for certain organizations or issues. If ISPs are able to control what content internet users have access to, they will be able to shape what conversations we have, what services we can access, and what the forms of activism will be available online.

There are a few possible ways to stop the challenge to net neutrality. Congress has the power to pass legislation affirming net neutrality. While it is hard to imagine getting enough Republican members of Congress to pass such legislation, it never hurts to contact your representatives to let them know that you support net neutrality. If net neutrality is overturned, it can be reversed fairly easily by Congress or the FCC, so if the House and Senate flip majority parties in 2018 or if a progressive president is elected in 2020, then there is a good chance that net neutrality could be restored.

There are also demonstrations planned across the country in support of net neutrality. Check here to see if there is one near you. Also, during the public comments period for the FCC’s proposed changes to net neutrality, there is evidence to suggest that over one million of the comments opposing net neutrality were created by bots or other entities not associated with the people whose contact information was used. The New York State Attorney General’s Office has a webpage where you can search your name to make sure that your information was not used to create one of these falsified comments. If you find that your information was used, you can report this to the FCC.

No matter what happens, make sure to stay informed and speak up if things go wrong. As past examples show, with enough attention, ISPs and telecoms will often reverse course if there is enough public pressure. Most of these companies care about their bottom line more than ideology, so if we demand access, there is a good chance they will provide it.