Ahead of the Federal Communications Commission’s vote on Open Internet rules, some rights leaders are urging commission members to consider not just net neutrality, but also “net equality.”
One of those leaders, Kim Keenan, president and CEO of the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC), describes net equality as putting consumers and communities first as policymakers debate four approaches to regulating the Internet: using Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which requires the FCC to ensure that broadband service is available to “all Americans”; using Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, which would reclassify broadband as a public utility; no regulation; or employing a hybrid approach that would classify Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as public utilities, but maintain the services of providers, including Comcast, Verizon and others, under Section 706. The vote is scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 26. President Barack Obama has laid out a plan that favors the Title II option.
Keenan, who before her October appointment at the MMTC served as general counsel and secretary for the NAACP, elaborates on her position in questions answered via email:
NewsOne: When the FCC holds its hearing in February, what are you hoping will come out of it?
Kim Keenan: We hope the FCC will adopt strong consumer protections against blocking, throttling, paid prioritization and other practices that are detrimental to the open Internet. FCC Chairman [Tom Wheeler] has said he wants to reclassify broadband as a common carrier [like phone service]. We have maintained that the safer and more effective way to proceed is to use the universal service authority granted to the FCC under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The MMTC recommends that the enforcement mechanism should be made stronger and more consumer-friendly by importing the “probable cause” standard found in Title VII (Equal Employment Opportunity) of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which allows consumers to rapidly and affordably request redress of open Internet complaints via the expert FCC. Some 45 major national minority organizations, including essentially all of the major national civil rights organizations, agree with our approach.
NO: How do you think Congress should act on net neutrality?
KK: Right now, Congress has initiated a legislative proposal to find common ground and closure on this issue. This could be a historic effort to legislate one of the most debated telecommunications issues of our time. Provided that Congress does not strip the FCC of its authority to act as an independent agency, this could be a productive next step. If this does not happen, we hope that the FCC will act in a cautious manner to preserve and protect the inclusion of people of color through its use of Section 706 authority.
NO: What do you think about President Barack Obama’s position on net neutrality? He argues that the FCC should create a new set of rules to ensure that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to restrict what people can do or see online.
KK: The president’s goals are highly laudable. However, he has proposed common carrier regulation, which would discourage investment and deployment of broadband and slow down the closing of the digital divide. So we absolutely agree with the president on his assessment of the problem, but we disagree on the best method of curing it. Further, the president’s proposal should have addressed the much larger challenge of broadband adoption that continues to result in second class digital citizenship among more vulnerable populations, including people of color, seniors, people with disabilities, and the poor. Finally, we hope the president will also set out a plan to eradicate the practice of digital redlining, the refusal to build and serve lower-income communities on the same terms as wealthier communities. Digital redlining should be against the law.
NO: What is next in the net neutrality debate?
KK: The next step is for either Congress or the FCC to act. Hopefully, the next set of rules will meet the president’s goals without compromising the Internet ecosystem. We trust in the judgment of the FCC Chair to ultimately make the correct decision without jeopardizing the aspirations of what broadband is and has become for millions of Americans, especially those that are not online and require the medium to achieve net equality.