Proposed net neutrality rules fail digital social justice for Latinos

The FCC's proposal to reclassify the Internet as a public utility could stall the Latino community's progress in broadband access and adoption.

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Latinos now own more mobile gadgets, spend more time using those devices and use more wireless data than the rest of the population.
In a disappointing move, Federal Communications Chairman (FCC) Tom Wheeler recently announced his decision to circulate proposed new rules on “net neutrality” that will revive an antiquated regulatory regime from 1934 and dramatically expand the FCC’s regulatory authority over the Internet. In particular, Wheeler announced his intention to propose that the FCC use its authority under Title II to regulate the Internet as a public utility.

While reclassification will be good news for lawyers, it’s bad news for investment and will result in regressive rate increases that will hit lower income and minority Americans the hardest.  And at a time when our nation is working to encourage broadband adoption and access to the Internet, particularly in minority households, the FCC’s move could be especially damaging.

Ongoing efforts to transition all of our country’s communications networks to Internet-based technology (called the “Internet Protocol Transition,” or simply “IP Transition”) hold great promise for minority communities.

Latinos continue to adopt wireless Internet at high rates, and in fact, three-in-four (76 percent) Hispanic internet users say they access the internet on a cellphone, tablet or other mobile handheld device at least occasionally, according to the Pew Hispanic survey. On average, Latinos now own more mobile gadgets, spend more time using those devices and use more wireless data than the rest of the population.

At the same time, the benefits of online access to healthcare, education, and work training continue to expand.  The more connected we are to the Internet, the more opportunities we have to better our lives. The internet is not only our portal to economic opportunity, it’s also the means by which we mobilize and communicate with each other and make our voices heard. Broadband access and adoption are fundamentally issues of digital social justice.

That it is why it was disappointing to hear proponents of reclassifying the Internet as a utility offer an important fact about the Internet’s openness but then arrive at precisely the wrong conclusion.

In written testimony, one of the minority advocacy organizations noted that 408 days had passed since a federal appeals court held that the FCC’s effort to regulate the Internet was unconstitutional. These advocates were, in effect, claiming that the Internet has been “unprotected” during that time.  But what’s happened in those 408 days is instructive: The Internet has continued to flourish as an open, vibrant and welcoming medium, just as it has since its inception.

Incredibly, without a single example of a problem and in the midst of overwhelming evidence of the wonders of today’s free and open Internet, proponents of reclassification advocated for unprecedented and expensive “Title II” regulations.

If it isn’t broken, why fix it? And why propose a solution that will turn the clock backward on the goals of the FCC?

As Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel commented last fall, “our regulatory frameworks often have their origin in laws that predate the Internet.” This is no exception.

Imposing Title II onto the Internet ecosystem would result in years of legal and business uncertainty, delaying investment decisions that would bring these high-speed IP networks and services to more Americans, as well as potentially stifling the creative and innovative spirit that has come to embody the Internet.

Many of those supporting the imposition of utility regulations have also aligned themselves directly with major corporate interests in the Silicon Valley. These are the same companies with the worst records of hiring Hispanics and other communities of color. And while we all hope they will do better in the future, their advocacy of policies that will raise the cost of “All Things Internet” to Hispanics and lower-income Americans at the same time that they fail to meaningfully employ communities of color borders on outrageous.

This time in our transition to Internet technologies calls for insights based on facts and above all, an understanding of the Internet’s sprawling technological complexity. Alternatives to heavy-handed regulations exist, including those that would not codify the treatment of the Internet as a public utility.

As the United States moves towards this great technological Internet-based communications network revolution, we must remember what brought us the Internet in the first place – rational regulations begun under President Clinton’s Administration, which have been furthered in a bipartisan manner by other administrations since.

Now, as we face the specter of onerous regulations, we should remain focused on the right goals – ensuring that Americans have access to high-speed networks and ensuring that any new regulations are grounded in the digital economy, not the past. The right rules will drive the build-out of broadband networks and the  infrastructure we need to keep our economy driving forward in a 21st century IP age.

Digital social justice demands no less.

Martin Chavez is a Senior Advisor to the Hispanic Telecommunications & Technology Partnership (HTTP), an umbrella organization representing 19 national Latino civil rights and social mobilization organizations. Chavez also served three terms as the Mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

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