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Net Neutrality Activists Take Civil Rights Fight To Telecom Giants

Protesters rally outside of Time Warner Cable Headquarters in New York Monday, February 23. (Photo courtesy of Media Action Grassroots Network)

In the lead-up to the FCC’s pivotal net neutrality vote on Thursday, civil rights and media justice organizations across the United States are taking their demands for an open internet to the store-fronts of the telecommunications giants that continue to aggressively fight the protections.

In partnership with the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-net), local organizations began rallying last week to bring the call “Don’t Block My Internet” to AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and Time Warner. Notable actions have already taken place in numerous cities—including Berkeley, California; Urbana-Champaign, Illinois; and San Antonio, Texas—with more slated for the coming days.

“Net neutrality is a life and death issue for black Americans,”
—E. Martel Miller, Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center

“The Internet has become the place where we tell our stories, where we are not only the consumers of content, but also the creators,” said Andrea Figueroa of the San Antonio-based Martinez Street Women’s Center in a press statement. “Communities of color, the LGBT community, those focused on workers rights, small businesses, artists, youth etc. have a lot at stake if net neutrality is not preserved.”

“Our voices would be stifled,” Figueroa continued, “and as communities still fighting to achieve equity, we have to tell the telecom lobbyists that the internet must stay open, and that our voices can be louder than their dollars.”

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“Net neutrality is a life and death issue for black Americans,” said E. Martel Miller, Board Member of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center. “For example, in 2011, police officers here in Champaign, Illinois choked and pepper sprayed a young African American man as he was handcuffed in the back of a squad car. The public had no knowledge this happened until months later when I leaked the squad car video and put it on our news site.”

“It was seen by over 30,000 outraged viewers in a few days,” Miller continued. “The Chief of Police, who had overseen police abuse of our community for a decade, was gone within a month.”

Malkia Cyril, executive director for the Center for Media Justice (which oversees MAG-Net), told Common Dreams that a civil rights strategy plays a critical role in the push for an open internet.

“The most important thing is these actions are led by communities of color and poor people, because we recognize that net neutrality rules are the civil rights rules for the internet,” said Cyril. “The Black Lives Matter movement, the fight against mass deportation, and the struggle for a fair wage—these fights are happening online and inspiring offline action.”

As the actions sweep the country this week, the fight for an open internet is heating up.

“The most important thing is these actions are led by communities of color and poor people, because we recognize that net neutrality rules are the civil rights rules for the internet.”
—Malkia Cyril, Center for Media Justice

The FCC is slated to hold a vote on Thursday over aproposal by Chairman Tom Wheeler to reclassify the internet as a utility under Title II of the Communications Act, a move that would help protect net neutrality from corporate efforts to create slow and fast lanes based on ability to pay.

Grassroots groups have pressed vigorously for the reclassification, which they hope will help reverse more than a decade of government and court failures to proactively protect the internet, including a federal appeals court ruling last January which tossed out the FCC’s Open Internet Order passed in 2010.

Wheeler is widely believed to have the votes needed to pass the proposal, yet this has not stopped the telecommunications industry from launching what journalist Tony Romm callsa “lobbying bonanza.” Meanwhile, Republican members of the FCC have launched an effortto delay—and undermine—the vote.

Open internet advocates—millions of whom have spoken up in favor of net neutrality protections—say they are hopeful that the FCC will pass the new regulations. The fact that the fight for net neutrality has gotten this far shows “the power that we have to raise our voices,” Rashad Robinson of said on a press call Tuesday.

However, Cyril advised that, whatever the outcome of the vote, the fight will continue.

“After this vote, I am certain that internet service providers will attempt legal action and members of Congress will put forward legislation, and that legislation will be in the interests of ISPs,” said Cyril. “We are still going to have a battle on our hands, but this vote gives us a tool to fight for our rights and voices.”

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