Having just returned from the YearlyKos meeting in Las Vegas, I was awestruck by the power bloggers (on-line public journalists) have to affect change in the political and social reality of America and world at large. The conference was well-attended with leftist grassroots organizers and political superstars to include Senator Harry Reid (NV), Senator Barbara Boxer (CA), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, presidential hopeful Mark Warner of Virginia, Ariana Huffington, Ambassador Joe Wilson and many other elected and would-be elected officials. And, still I had no real understanding or idea that bloggers were exacting as much influence on the Democratic and Independent parties until on rerouted red-eye back to Brooklyn, I saw DailyKos founder, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga articulating a powerful message about nascent grassroots organizing on Meet the Press. And, all at once I got it: I need to get a blog and encourage many of my friends to do likewise.
Using the YearlyKos as jumpoff and the net neutrality as example, I want to make three key points: (1) telecom policy to include media is the new civil rights legislation (2) more people of color, especially of the working class, have to become concerned and organized about telecom policy with both online and offline organizing initiatives and (3) so called progressives, liberals and Democrats working on telecom policy will have to up the ante on inclusive strategies for recognizing, accepting and respecting leadership from people of color, poor communities, immigrant populations, youth and disabled persons or give up all creditability to a progressive agenda.
First, telecommunication policy is the new civil rights legislation determining who will and will not read and write in the digital age where the policy message is clear- the American public is to be rendered powerless to affect change beyond their ability to consume. Like Jim Crow’s “three-fourths human”, Browns’ “separate but equal” and the 2000 election results in Florida affirm, the telecom debate, specifically, people’s of color access to the Internet directly affect their ability to make informed choices and weigh in on important political, economic and social policies of the day. While working poor people may not understand telecom policy in its entirety or even all the benefits associated with the Internet, I think they see it like this. People in segregated communities who are cut off from economic expansion and access to jobs, services and mobility do understand that the Internet is like a bridge or winding road that connects them to a better job, a more prosperous life, and a more secure future- and much more than an entertainment device or convenient luxury item.
Focusing on marginality and oppression by capitalism in the U.S., Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider states “…an old and primary tool of all oppressors is to keep the oppressed occupied with the master's concerns…but the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.” The essay radically challenged how white people "learn about" racism, or how men "learn about" women." The net neutrality debate holds the potential to be one of the ways middle and upper income Americans- already benefiting from broadband connection to the Internet “learn about” and maybe understand how marginality and discrimination policies affect how poor Americans have tried to access and stay connected to in the Internet since the Telecommunication Act of 1996.
Accordingly to the 2003 CPS data indicate:
Half of American consumers with incomes over $75,000 a year have broadband access.
Half of those who earn less than $30,000 have no Internet service at all. .
Overall, more than 60 percent of all US households have a computer and 55 percent have Internet access. (However, these data address important differences in computer ownership and Internet access among vulnerable segments of the population.)
Only slightly more than half of all African-American and Latino children and less than half of all children living in families with incomes less than $30,000 have access to home computer.
By comparison, 85% of white, non-Latino children and 94% of children in families with $60,000 of income have access to home computers.
Second, I was a speaker on the “Net Neutrality” panel at the YearlyKos to discuss the digital divide and issues about access to Information Communication Technology (ICT). There were only a few people of color at the conference underscoring another divide- a socio-economic one where who attended had everything to do with social networks and who was doing the inviting. That’s when I knew I needed to blog and wanted more people much smarter and more informed that I to blog also. Principally, there was a social network that I didn’t have access to even though I was online and to my mind fairly well-known to have something to say about the telecom policy, in general, and the digital divide, specifically. Still, I was not embedded in the blogsophere and I needed and wanted to be. To be sure, access is but one point to be made here. Consequently, access issues lead me to the former point. Because there were not many people of color doing the inviting (read here as key decision makers within the YearlyKos planning committee) there weren’t that many people of color on the dais or in the audience. To be sure, the Internet alone will not save us or give us the progressive democratic world we desire- it is but one tool. Conclusively, owning, managing and operating a network and its infrastructure have a direct correlation to meaningful participation and decision-making power.
Third, this leads to the net neutrality debate. Net neutrality is based upon stated principles of non-discrimination, interconnection and access residing within a large, complex policy sphere ushered in by technological convergence. Technological convergence is the advancement in technology that enables telecommunication firms and information service providers to offer the same services. Media ownership rules govern content and the switch from analog to digital broadcast. However, corporate power with the support of permissive policymaking has trumped attempts by well meaning but flawed at progressive democratic reforms. Allow me to set a policy context, though a bit complex, it will allows us to clearly appreciate how net neutrality may be considered the latest form of socio-political marginalization.
FCC Commissoners Copps is only partly right when he says that net neurtality is about control of content and conduit. Indeed, some corporations and activists call for more oversight of high-speed Internet service providers (ISPs).The Telecommunications Act of 1996 permitted deregulated cable and telecommunication firms to have both conduit control and content ownership. At its core, net neutrality policy debate centers on broadband deployment in poor communities of color. Current policies such as bans on municipal wireless provision, unregulated cable franchises and selective broadband deployment compound this discussion (Consumers Union 2004). Selective broadband deployment highlights the importance of geography bypassing low-income central city areas as well as less densely populated rural areas (Graham and Marvin 2001). Likewise, underlying principles of universal service in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 were used to set rates for basic service and applying principles of cost allocation and cost recovery to keep the cost of basic service low and affordable. Yet, policy choices driven by free-market rationales have granted telecommunication and cable firms duopoly power that has resulted in high prices and geographic “black holes” (Turner 2005). City-owned and consumer-owed utility models deliver public access to new technologies, such as wired and wireless broadband connectivity, in underserved communities and public institutions (Scott 2005). All the while, data points to a clear association between broadband access and positive economic outcomes, especially regarding employment growth (Lehr, Osorio, Gillett and Sirbu 2006). Still, resistance to so called network neutrality allows discriminatory practices against content once a person is connected to the Internet (Cooper and Scott 2006).
Executive and judicial branches of government have played a prominent role in broadband deployment and have helped reshaped the policy context. The Supreme Court case National Cable and Telecommunications Association et al. v. Brand X Internet Services centered on whether cable operators should be required under federal law to lease their cable lines to competitors. Siding with FCC, the Supreme Court ruled, 6-3, that cable companies did not have to lease cable lines to competitors thus rolling back the historical “common carrier” provisions. The policy implications are many and potentially could influence how quickly high-speed Internet services expand online access across the country; what features these services will have; and how much these services will cost particularly in regions where cable is the only broadband choice for consumers.
Many proponents’ of net neutrality cite democratic discourse and economic competition benefits from policies designed to prevent content discrimination, and ensure diversity of access. Indeed, promoting deregulation would clear the way for more consolidation of ISPs, less competition and fewer choices. But so what? What is the progressive imperative?
As one industry lobbyist stated "Net neutrality" is "sloganeering". I agree and would add that without a clear link to direct action- informed by progressive values for social justice- even an informed and engaged citizenry may lack the will and organization to affect change. Many Americans, particularly those in marginalized communities that are most affected, have simply ”tuned out,” rather than face the great difficulty of disentangling concepts of an unjust media (including print, telephone, television, radio, Internet, and cable services) from the complex systems and policy considerations that govern telecommunications. People in underserved communities do understand that the Internet is the information superhighway that connects people with economic, social and political opportunity and power. So, asking the working poor, who are most often people of color and not connected to the Internet, to sign onto telecom policy reforms such as broadband connectivity implicit in net neutrality debate is like Mercedes owners or even hybrid Accord owners asking poor people with out cars or public transportation to sign petitions to fill pot holes on the interstate roads. Greater, so called progressives have not embraced “last mile” policies that would have connected central city residents and rural residents to the Internet some ten years ago. Where was righteous anger and progressive values when the Bush Administration cut funding for Community Technology Centers in the 2001? Where were the mass emails and social protest for budget cuts in Housing and Urban Development funds for Neighborhood Networks?
I argue these issues must be made a central component of a progressive telecom policy that looks beyond immediate victories by leftist elites who as one YearlyKos panelist declared, “I just want to win.” True progressive leadership requires a comprehensive and inclusive model for telecom policy reform, generally, and a representative democracy, specifically. When will so-called progressives address the racism, elitism, classism, anti-poor, anti-immigrant, anti-gay rhetoric and legislation pervasive in and around the telecom debate? Proposed policy changes, including net neutrality, bans on free or low-cost municipal wireless provision to city residents, do not go far enough to make these technologies more accessible and more affordable. Infrastructure ownership and content as policy must be informed by a race, class, gender and economic analysis for ICT access as a central part of any so-called progressive agenda. In their absence, all types of divides will continue reflecting that those who have been traditionally misrepresented in telecom and media policy and programming are the poor, and yet they have the least access to the ICT policy leadership that I think is essential for substantive change- political and otherwise.
Here are but a few of the action items I could recommend.
While bloggers are but one part of a community with their finger on the pulse of what’s going on. They have found a way to take online organizing and formalized it into offline direct action clearly where policy is concerned
§ People of color and allies must blog to increase efforts to build community, constituency and connection to both online and offline institutions that can affect policy change.
§ Together, bloggers have the ability to take the jargon out of policy and take on the established leadership of the so called progressive Left movement as well as the conservative Right in order to make it accessible to the underserved communities outlined above.
§ Bloggers have spoken truth to power, even when it is Leftist progressives, about people who would be left out or written off representing different opinions and experiences. Thus, they are able to tell local stories with authenticity and passion- communicating both importance and implications for underserved communities.