The muting of underserved voices

“Activists, independent journalists, and other content creators not connected to corporate media conglomerates will be disadvantaged in the coming year if net neutrality is done away with altogether.”

The internet ushered in an explosion of opportunities for marginalized communities to participate in national and global conversations they had been largely left out of before. Not only did these communities have a seat at the table — an open accessible internet allowed them to actually have impact and change the dialogue around social justice issues, media stereotypes, and more.

In 2018, marginalized voices could face diminishment in the level of access, empowerment, and impact they have, including those who already have online platforms and those who may want them. Although they will not totally disappear, and won’t be muted at the levels that they once were, the Federal Communications Commission decision last week to repeal Obama-era internet protections will no doubt hamper the kinds of reach and access marginalized communities gained by leveraging digital platforms when net neutrality rules were in place.

Activists, independent journalists, and other content creators not connected to corporate media conglomerates will be disadvantaged in the coming year if net neutrality is done away with altogether.

“Your internet service provider (ISP) does not look like the same provider you signed up with 10 or 12 years ago,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn says. “They are now in the content business. They are now producing movies and shows. They even own…media companies.”

With the rollback of net neutrality rules, Clyburn insists that content-producing telecom companies, such as AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, would have an unfair advantage over smaller and independent content producers. ISPs could block access to those websites and could also impact the flow of information by manipulating consumer experiences with other websites versus their own. “They could advantage their content in such a way that their flow of information thrives, and yours would not,” Clyburn said.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon executive, released a video last week poking fun at consumer advocates’ claims. The message behind Pai’s video, which was first published on the conservative website, The Daily Caller, is that consumers will still be able to use the internet for the same things they do now, including posting pictures of food and pets on Instagram and buying cheap products from marketers.

But Pai’s assertion isn’t fully true. No net neutrality would be especially harmful for content producers like journalist DeShuna Spencer, who founded kweliTV.com — a platform that shares undiscovered documentaries, films, web shows, children’s programming, news, and more that targets audiences in the African diaspora. It features content that does not get exposure through mainstream networks. Still in its infancy, it will be that much harder for Spencer’s startup to stand on the strength of its own legs, and reach growing audiences famished for original content that resonates with them. Or founders like Spencer could be handicapped by pay-to-play internet access in which web companies would pay for priority fast lanes on an ISP’s network.

Some state attorney generals are gearing up to fight the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality. Some journalism funders are also working to figure out ways to better support news content produced by underserved voices (more on that later). So there is hope for platforms like kweliTV, but no guarantee.

Forty-three percent of Americans get their news online, and this is especially so for young people and people of color. For them, removing net neutrality rules means not only stifling content producers’ ability to reach massive audiences, but also restricting consumer choice. Pai’s video (which also features a Pizzagate conspiracy theorist) does not address how his commission will address this major failing in the coming months, nor is it clear whether Pai’s commision truly understands how marginalized communities and underserved voices would be impacted if, in fact, net neutrality is done away with.

They, along with the rest of us, will start to find out in 2018.

Tracie Powell is a senior fellow at the Democracy Fund and founder of All Digitocracy.

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