The Race and Space of Network Neutrality

Network neutrality is one of the most important issues of our time. It may be just as consequential to the lived realities of the American people as immigration policy or criminal justice reform. The recent repeal of network neutrality laws by the Federal Communications Commission may change what someone sees online. This is about as consequential a development as one can get in our digital age. Moreover, when Americans are given an explanation of Network Neutrality, they support it, overwhelmingly.

But the issue does not move the needle. According to polls, the majority of Americans, about three-quarters, don’t know what network neutrality is. In 2014 during a big network neutrality vote, media outlets rarely covered it. This indifference is, I suggest because the pro-network neutrality advocates need a more compelling narrative. They need to make clear that the network neutrality debate is not merely about the economics of service providers, edge providers, end users, and the data that travels betwixt and between them. It is also about race, space, and data diversity.

Network neutrality is the principle that all data traveling through a broadband internet service provider’s lines should be treated equally. If someone in their home — an end user, clicks a link to see a video from a website — an edge provider, that request should be fulfilled with equal speed by the service provider as any other request to any other website. In other words, videos from Vimeo should load as fast as videos from YouTube. The service provider whose lines the request runs through — the Time Warners and the Verizons of the world — should not be able to interfere with those requests. This interference can occur in a least three different ways:

  • The service provider can offer an edge provider a fast lane for their data — “paid prioritization.”

Paid prioritization…throttling…blocking. These concepts don’t inspire or motivate people. It appears to be more about technology and business than the everyday lives of people. Advocates for network neutrality need to build a narrative around social justice if they want to make a compelling case to a broad range of the American population. I submit that the case can be convincingly made that network neutrality rules will reduce the amount of data diversity in the digital environment and reduce the number of black spaces online.

A lesson can be learned from the 1996 Telecommunications Act which deregulated the radio industry. Among other things, the act removed caps on radio ownership. This predictably led to a dramatic decline in the diversity of owners as smaller media outlets were bought by large corporations. In a piece done on the twentieth anniversary of the act, Truthout reported that: “Twenty years later the devastating impact of the legislation is undeniable: About 90 percent of the country’s major media companies are owned by six corporations.” In 1995 there were 146 black-owned radio stations. By 2012, that number was 68. By 2016, it was 25, with 20 being owned by Cathy Hughes’ Radio One.

Ownership is important and stands alone as an issue of concern. Another concern is the diversity of programming available for users. Homogeneity of ownership reduces the diversity of programming. Research done by social scientists suggests so. The number of radio station owners in a given area increases the range of programming. Ergo, remove the local owners and replace them with one or two big corporations and you will get a homogeneous radio environment.

Network Neutrality laws may have a similar effect on black edge providers. Consider Worldstarhiphop. This is a content aggregating website that caters to an urban (read: black) audience. If you have never heard of the site at this point, that in itself may be illustrative of different spaces in the digital environment, and the need to preserve them. According to Alexa, it is the 235th ranked site in the United States. Not bad at all. Worldstarhiphop is a black space. It is a launching pad for many artists who use the site to debut their new music. It performs a water cooler function in the same way that a popular sitcom would. I can imagine customers in a barber shop or beauty salon cracking up over the highest rated new upload or debating the quality of a new artist’s single. It is not all good with Worldstar. The site gains much of its fame and traffic from showing violent street fights and has been accused of perpetuating African-American stereotypes. But even if the site shows videos that others find distasteful, it is a black-owned enterprise showing black people the content they want to watch. It is a black space.

If some may be ambivalent about Worldstarhiphop, consider the Urban Movie Channel. This is a streaming video service created by Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television. The service, like many of the niche or boutique streaming services like Britbox or Acorn TV, makes available new content and collections of old content that would be hard to find on larger services like Hulu or Netflix. As I write this, the splash page for the Urban Movie Channel advertises a tribute to black comic Bernie Mac. One of the feature series is Bronx Special Investigations Unit. I can imagine people in a barbershop or beauty salon cracking over a Worldstar upload with Urban Movie Channel playing on the wall-mounted television set that is de rigueur in those establishments.

Edge providers like Worldstarhiphop and the Urban Movie Channel are digital equivalents of chitlin’ circuit fare and helps to re-establish and re-invigorate the links within the black diaspora. This needs to be protected.

A deregulated digital environment with no network neutrality rules puts these black-owned edge providers in a precarious position. What if content providers decided to offer fast lanes to companies. One can imagine a scenario where bigger fish in the sea — the Youtubes and Amazons of the world — are willing to pay the price, but black-owned edge providers may not. This means that when a user of these sites — most likely black, attempts to access the content from those sites, they will have to wait longer to retrieve the content. This degraded experience will discourage users, and the relationship between the provider and user is degraded. Or, if the fast lane price is paid, then that cost will be passed on to consumers in the form of new or higher subscription fees or more advertisements. For users, this may mean they cannot afford the service or are turned off by the welter of advertisements.

Blocking and throttling would produce similar results, although the rationale would be different. Service providers have an incentive to promote content they have produced or can directly profit from. A frequently used example is the incentives for a company like Time Warner to throttle or even block a streaming video app like Amazon Prime because Time Warner is also in the video content business. If they would block a behemoth like Prime, they would think nothing of blocking a smaller, niche, black-owned streaming service or content aggregator.

And so, network neutrality is about more than the economics of technological innovation. Network neutrality is about race, space, and data diversity. It is a social justice issue. I have used the black experience as an example here, but the logic extends to all marginalized or minority groups. This argument can be made for religious minorities, sexual minorities, and women as well. In this way, a more compelling narrative about network neutrality can be presented to a wider swath of Americans.

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