“Historically, the debate over net neutrality has been between techies, public interest groups, and big telecoms,” says activist Steven Renderos. “The real voices of people outside of D.C. haven’t really been heard on these issues up until this last year.”
What made this past year different was an overwhelming public push for stronger net neutrality protections. Back in January 2014, a federal appeals court threw out the bedrock net neutrality rules of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), thereby allowing big telecoms like Comcast to provide faster speeds to websites that could afford to pay for them. It didn’t take long for users and activists to push back, and push back they did. By September, the FCC had received more than 3.7 million comments—enough to crash its website. And then this past February, after the petitioning and organizing had gone on for months, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced sweeping new protections for a free and open internet. Called Title II reclassification, the new rules label the web as a public utility that must operate on a level playing field. “This is a big deal,” Renderos adds.
Renderos is the policy director of the Center for Media Justice, one of many groups at the forefront of the recent net neutrality push. As a nationwide coalition of more than 150 activist groups, the Center for Media Justice (in concert with its activist offshoot, the Media Action Grassroots Network) has worked at the intersection of media policy and social justice for more than a decade. Through popular education, community organizing, and grassroots media projects, the group has worked tirelessly to amplify the voices of communities of color and low-income people and to challenge corporate control of the media system. The coalition has enjoyed more than a few major victories in recent years, on everything from laws governing municipal broadband to local control of radio. But net neutrality is by far the most critical issue.
“Net neutrality is the free speech of the internet,” says Malkia A. Cyrus, the executive director of the Center for Media Justice. “It’s the principal set of rules that keeps the internet fair and levels the playing field.” But like Renderos, Cyrus sees mainstream coverage of these issues as a barrier to organizing. “We know that the way these issues are talked about is very technocratic—people don’t understand it,” she says. “And so we don’t really talk about net neutrality all that much. What we talk about are the social impacts of the web, the issues of justice, the questions of equality that arise. What we’re fighting for is an internet that’s open and fair.”
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