Is the federal government trying to dismantle Obama-era rules that supporters say protects the flow of information on the internet? Or is it doing away with rules that critics say stifle the openness and innovation that has made the internet what it is today?
That is at the heart of an obscure policy debate in Washington. A number of groups that are critical of internet service providers like Comcast argue that the rules, known as net neutrality, are essential to prevent such companies from giving premium access to content providers willing to pay for it. But opponents of the rules say they are unnecessary government meddling in a space that has flourished precisely because the government has kept its hands off of it.
In an interesting twist, the debate has drawn the interest of civil rights activists. The most notable is Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization.
The group’s involvement in the fight is itself the subject of heated debate. The group and its supporters say that it is simply seeking to ensure that all voices are heard on the internet, in the long tradition of civil rights. But critics say the group has latched onto the issue as a potent fundraising tool.
Now, Color of Change and other supporters of net neutrality are gearing up for what promises to be one of the biggest online protests to fight the Federal Communication Commission’s move to repeal the rules. The protests will take place on July 12. Protesters plan to use tools on major web platforms to contact members of Congress and the FCC, according to Fight for the Future, another group involved in the protest.
Leaders at the Color of Change argue that repealing the rules would devastate Black communities.
“Net neutrality is essential to protecting our free and open Internet, which has been crucial to today’s fights for civil rights and equality,” the Color of Change writes in an online petition. “Our ability to have our voices heard in this democracy depends on an open Internet because it allows voices and ideas to spread based on substance, rather than financial backing. We will not stand by silently as [FCC Chairman Ajit Pai] solidifies his role reigning over [Donald Trump‘s] FCC by following through on Trump’s campaign promise to dominate the web by closing the open Internet.”
Pai, a former Verizon attorney, has proposed to overturn a 2015 Obama administration decision that empowers the commission to regulate the Internet much like a telephone company. Opponents say the plan would allow broadband providers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast to throttle or even block content or charge content providers to prioritize their sites. It could come up for a vote as soon as October.
But proponents of the measure are suspicious of the movement and point a finger at liberal billionaire George Soros. The Color of Change and its PAC have been recipients of Soros dollars, according to published reports and donor records, which proponents argue have been used in part to wage attacks on internet service providers whose goal they believe is to restrict access to the web.
Political commentators like Hazel Edney recently noted in a Black Enterprise OP-ED that Color of Change’s “parent organization, Citizen Engagement Laboratory, has received at least $400,000 in funding from Soros’s Open Society Institute.”
What’s the big deal? Well, she argues that Soros believes in big government or that the federal “government is the preferred arbiter of the flow of internet content.” She and others also argue that the protest movement is a red herring for economic interests, not racial justice.
“Let me be clear. I am not saying it’s not an important issue to our community,” she writes. “I simply disagree in the draping of the issue in racial justice and presuming to speak for all African Americans when some of our communities have literally burned to the ground because of more critical issues that have not been funded.”