The heated debate in Washington over a critical policy measure that could shape the future of the Internet has created a peculiar split among traditional allies. A number of civil rights organizations and diversity groups overwhelmingly back a proposal that would lightly regulate telecom providers and broadband companies. But other groups representing minorities as well as consumer advocates and other public interest groups want to make sure that Internet service providers are regulated closely to be sure they don't slow down the traffic speeds of Web sites they don't like.
The strange juxtaposition can be plainly observed in the letters sent by these groups to the Federal Communications Commission, which is responsible for establishing the new so-called "net neutrality" policy. Nearly 100 organizations, consisting largely of Asian- and Hispanic-American groups, have asked the commission to aggressively regulate broadband providers such as Time Warner Cable or Verizon. The letter, which is signed by Color of Change, Presente, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and others, asks FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to start regulating Internet providers under Title II of the Communications Act — the same step proposed by President Obama recently when he asked the FCC for tougher Internet rules himself.
"The fight for an open Internet is not just about broadband access and corporate investment," the letter reads. "It is also a fight for real representation for the most vulnerable constituencies in the United States."
Roughly four dozen minority organizations, many of them representing African-Americans, have opposed aggressive regulations on Internet providers — mostly on the grounds that stiff rules could discourage broadband companies from upgrading networks in poorer neighborhoods. They also argue that new broadband business models, such as exempting certain Web services from consumers' data caps, helps encourage the adoption of Internet among minorities and the poor. But this practice, known as "zero rating," cuts against the principle of net neutrality because it requires Internet providers to be able to give some Web services, like music apps, priority over others.
"Some prioritization may be good considering it allows us to address and answer some of the barriers to adoption we see," said Nicol Turner-Lee, vice president of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, one of the groups that supports lighter regulation.
But the letter from diversity organizations supporting stiffer rules warns that network upgrades aren't the only issue at stake. The pushback suggests civil rights groups aren't united on how best to secure the free flow of Web data.
"The open Internet has given our communities the rare opportunity to ensure our stories are told accurately, in our own voices," the letter reads. See more of it below.