deutsche version
grafisches Element

A Nation Rising for Internet Freedom and Justice

Betty Yu »

“The giant communication media: the great monsters of the television industry, the communication satellites, magazines, and newspapers seem determined to present a virtual world, created in the image of what the globalization process requires.”
-Subcomandante Marcos, Zapatista Army of National Liberation/EZLN (1997)

Many of us feel that simply “speaking” or “exposing” the truth is not enough. We need platforms like the Open Internet to counter corporate controlled media. Think about what it would be like if we didn’t have social media to point to the injustices of our time—police brutality, labor exploitation, war crimes, climate change, the attack on our public schools, to name a few. It was on social media that millions of us learned about the militarized police tactics that were used to suppress the uprising in #Ferguson after the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. #HandsUpDontShoot wasn’t just a hashtag but demonstrated to a nation that people of color are building a powerful movement to confront institutional racism and demand an end to police state violence across the United States.

The “Arab Spring” Uprising of 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt didn’t start on social media, but it did unleash our imagination and inspired people to think globally about the use of the Internet to connect an international community across borders. It empowered activists and allowed them to coordinate and communicate to the world how governments were repressing democracy movements and more importantly, how people were standing up in revolt. But the evolution of our digital age and an open Internet has given these same tools to state regimes to suppress social movements by surveilling and insidiously undermining them. In the case of the now infamous US based Occupy Wall Street uprising, it was revealed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, a “counter-terrorism” government body formed after 9/11, and the local police were in regular communication, spying, and deploying methods to disrupt it.

According to the New York Times, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, said uncovered documents illustrated how the F.B.I. had stepped out of line and improperly aggregated information on individuals involved in lawful activities. “The collection of information on people’s free-speech actions is being entered into unregulated databases, a vast storehouse of information widely disseminated to a range of law-enforcement and, apparently, private entities,” states Verheyden-Hilliard. “This is precisely the threat—people do not know when or how it may be used and in what manner.”

In 2012, during the height of the Occupy Movement, Twitter was forced to relinquish Occupy Wall Street protesters’ tweets to a Manhattan Criminal Court after months of fighting a subpoena by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which demanded that it hand over three months of data. Twitter did challenge the U.S. subpoena by defending the individual users and their data generated content. However, the courts shot down Twitter’s challenge.

The US government likes to point fingers at other governments for their use of tactics to suppress protests and uprisings, but in 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the US’s hypocrisy. His revelations exposed how the National Security Agency has been spying and tracking US citizens and residents through social media, Internet, and cell phone activity. It uncovered the tight relationship media and telecommunication corporations have with the government and police authorities to indiscriminately keep a rolling rolodex of millions of Americans’ electronic data and conversations.

Digital surveillance may be new to some communities, but for the social movements and communities of color, government surveillance is not new and has been happening for decades. Since the unionizing and communists movements of the 1920s to the COINTEL PRO FBI program of the 1970s to suppress the Black Liberation movement, government authorities have used tactics like wiretapping phones, intercepting mail, and infiltrating groups to “divide and conquer". Today, immigrants and communities of color experience a heightened militarized police presence in their neighborhoods, which relies on digital surveillance to succeed. For example the Secure Communities (S-Comm) is a government program that allows local police to share information with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with the stated purpose of identifying and deporting undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes. This kind of joint surveillance has led to illegal widespread racial profiling and violation of people’s civil liberties.

Today, activists, progressive technologists, media makers and cultural workers innovatively use social media to speak truth to power and rely on an Open Internet to spread their messages. Josh Begley created a phone application, “Drone+” which tracked every US drone strike and would send a push notification to users any time a drone dropped around the world. Apple rejected the application five times upon finally approving after Begley and activists’ persistence. In order to get it approved Begley had to take “Drone” out of its name and renamed it “Metadata”. The Open Internet has made it possible for Syrian activist, Abdulkader Hariri to tweet out and keep the global community abreast of the US airstrikes on Syria in its “mission” against ISIS, the Islamist terrorist group. Michael Premo and Rachel Falcone who created the website Sandy Storyline provide a platform for victims and relief workers of Hurricane Sandy to upload and share their own stories of displacement and resilience, connecting it to the global climate change crisis.

But in the US our open and unfettered Internet is being challenged and can kill what we know as Network Neutrality. Right now the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) a government agency that was created to protect the public interest may be siding with corporations like Verizon and Comcast who want to further monetize the Internet and stifle our right to free expression. Currently, we have an Open Internet that prevents discrimination on-line. In other words, Open Systems’ website travels at the same speed to an Internet user as the right wing Fox News. The Open Internet allows all of us to be creators and producers, not just passive consumers, regardless of whether we have millions of dollars to disseminate our information. If certain broadband providers and some of the government leaders they endorse had their way, they would interrupt our Open Internet and our ability to access our favorite websites and apps and instead leave it at the hands of Internet Service Providers and media corporations to determine what websites you are able to access.

This past summer, when advocates of Net Neutrality raised their voice in protest, the FCC opened up a Notice for Public Rulemaking Period. The public was in such an uproar, overloading FCC’s website with comments that caused its website to shutdown for a few hours. More than 1 million Americans have filed comments slamming the FCC's proposal. Thousands of websites participated in Internet Slowdown Day on September 10, 2014, demonstrating how slow their websites would load if Internet Service Providers had their way.

Now is the time to take action. Groups like the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), a national multi-sector media justice network of over 175 grassroots organizations are organizing online and on the ground. They are demanding that FCC commissioners, especially Chairman Tom Wheeler, meet face to face with communities who will be most impacted by the proposal to shut down an Open Internet. Earlier this year they partnered with organizations to host town hall meetings in cities from Oakland, California to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Media justice groups like the Media Literacy Project were instrumental in bringing hundreds of youth organizers, activists and communities of color to public meeting in Albuquerque, where community members testified to the FCC Chair on why Internet Freedom is one of the most essential civil rights issue of our time.

Internet Freedom is also about Access

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights upholds everyone’s fundamental right to communicate freely. It reads, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Yet today in the US, many disenfranchised communities face a multitude of barriers to achieving this right to free expression and the exchanging and receiving of ideas and information.

Despite being a first world nation, the digital divide in the United States is still a major problem. A 2013 recent Pew Research Center report shows that 30% of the people living in the US don’t have access to “high speed broadband” connections, which roughly equals 19 million people. The report reveals the racial differences as well, with African Americans and Latinos less likely to have high-speed Internet access than whites. That same Pew study shows that a growing number of Blacks and Latinos have access to the Internet on their smartphones, which brings their “high-speed broadband” adoption numbers almost equal to whites. But this is deceptive. There is still an immense disparity among those with wired vs. wireless Internet access, and it is often divided along class and racial lines.

Communities living on fixed incomes are likely to pay for service on their mobile devices that on a wired connection at home. What does it mean for people of color who only have access to the Internet via their smartphones? Now more than ever, our lives are inextricably tied to having high-speed Internet access on both fixed and wireless devices. People of color need access to a wired Internet connection on a computer to carry out their daily lives and access essential information, such as applying for a job, filling out a college application, signing up for government assistance, contacting a doctor.

Broadband access is still a challenge in rural and Native-American communities who constitute the majority of Americans unable to access the Internet. According to the latest FCC Broadband Progress Report, wired Internet does not reach 19 million Americans. Of those underserved by fixed broadband networks, 14.5 million live in rural areas and nearly a third in tribal lands. Of course this digital divide translates into a material and economic divide that prevents rural communities from accessing better education and health care, job opportunities and fully participating in society as a whole.

Diversity in media ownership is virtually non-existent in the US. Accelerated media consolidation has narrowed the already limited access to the airwaves for women and communities of color. Women own less than 7% of all TV and radio station licenses despite being half of the US population. People of color make up over 36% of the population but own just over 7% of radio licenses and 3% of TV licenses. Currently five media corporations control 90% of what we see, hear and watch. This is tied to historical marginalization, how some people’s stories are not told. For many, media justice is not just about challenging how the issues that affect disenfranchised communities are portrayed in the media, or just creating their own alternative media, it is also about getting to the root cause and fighting to change the media policies that currently only benefit the 1%.

It is important to stay attuned to and active on all media justice issues. The digital divide, digital surveillance and the fight against corporate media mergers are connected to Internet Freedom. If we follow the big money behind the current Comcast and Time Warner Cable $45 billion dollar merger proposal, we’ll find powerful right-wing lobbying groups like American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) behind it. ALEC is the same group that has been pushing to take away workers’ right to unionize, challenging African-Americans’ voting rights in the South, and advocating “Stand Your Ground” laws that allowed for Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman to be acquitted. This merger would mean the top two US cable companies would be a unified media company and control a massive television and Internet market of more than 30 million subscribers across the US’s largest media markets.

Growing the Internet Freedom Movement

Right now, groups like Media Action Grassroots Network, Voices for Internet Freedom, Free Press , ,, Common Cause among others are putting pressure on FCC Chairman Wheeler to abandon his plan that would let Internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon create a two-tiered Internet. It would create fast lanes for the very few who can afford to pay extra fees and a slow lane for the rest of us. Activists and organizing groups are demanding that the FCC not only throw out its proposal but to also reclassify The Internet as a Title II Service which would make it an essential service, like the telephone.

Underrepresented communities, immigrants, working people and people of color need an Open Internet. The Internet is an essential part of our everyday lives, allowing us to connect to jobs, housing, school, healthcare and to fully participate in a 21st century digital age. This Internet Freedom movement needs the leadership and involvement of racial justice, civil rights, and social change movements in order to win on this issue. These are the communities who understand how deeply it affects their lives, their organizing and their basic right to communicate. The Internet Freedom movement needs to engage and prioritize the leadership of those most impacted by Internet access—those of low-income, people of color, and immigrants. These are the people and communities who are the stakeholders and are on the frontlines of our fights. They know how to organize, and to win.

Short bio:

Betty Yu is a NYC based media maker, artist, activist and cultural worker. For four years she coordinated the Media Action Grassroots Network, a national network of 175 grassroots organizations advancing a people's media justice agenda. Currently she is on the Board of Directors of Center for Media Justice, Third World Newsreel and Deep Dish TV.

grafisches Element