I just finished listening to Federal Communications Commission member Mignon Clyburn make the argument for more State intervention in the digital data markets during an event sponsored by civil rights group Color of Change. Ms Clyburn’s remarks provided a foundation for the forum’s theme; that net neutrality is about promoting racial justice, and that communities of color could not afford to have corporations, particularly broadband companies, edit, block, or throttle their content and disrupt their narratives. The solution, according to Color of Change, is for more regulation by the federal government of broadband providers.
In Ms Clyburn, Color of Change, Free Press, and other “Netizens” have found a champion, a regulator willing to fly down from Washington, DC and declare that she is with them, listening to their concerns, and willing to take the good fight back to the Republican majority Commission. Ms Clyburn is very vocal in her support of applying Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 to regulate broadband providers; to prevent the shenanigans that blocking and throttling online content entails.
Ms Clyburn echoed the “what if” scenario of bad broadband company behavior. What if a broadband access provider blocked a consumer’s access to their favorite website? What if a broadband access provider slowed down the flow of a content company’s traffic to their subscribers? Ms Clyburn likened these scenarios to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s where she described efforts by telephone companies in the South to block calls made by civil rights activists relaying news to other activists in neighboring counties or states.
The problem with Commissioner Clyburn’s analysis is that is completely overlooks the state action; the state’s participation in the blocking of phone calls during the civil rights era. White supremacist citizens councils were behind the telephonic intimidation of civil rights groups. In Mississippi, the organization and funding of these groups were approved by the Mississippi legislature in part as a retaliatory reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that held that the segregation of schools and other public places was unconstitutional. State action by the legislature carried out by willing agents, the citizens councils, was one method to keep in check not only the enforcement of the ruling but any other civil rights advances. Bottom line, the state carried out the action. Although phone companies were agents, it was a state action prompting the blocking of calls.
Today, Commissioner Clyburn would like the federal version of the State apparatus to regulate the flow of traffic over the internet. All of a sudden, we are supposed to believe that because sixty-plus years have passed that the State has done a complete about face and should be trusted to do the just thing by consumers and producers of broadband access services. I’m not ready to make that leap because the State is not capable of the feel good actions that Commissioner Clyburn and her Netizens want the State to impart in. On the contrary, the State’s nature is to oppress. Nothing good for the individual or individuals who enter voluntarily into business associations comes from its actions.
The irony is that net neutrality proponents are acting like the very citizens councils that tried to intimidate Black Americans post the U.S. civil war. Net neutrality want the State to keep the hammer on the behavior of investors and service providers by regulating who they enter into strategic partnerships with; the speeds by which traffic should flow on private networks; and how closely unaffiliated individuals and groups can look at the management practices of private businesses. And the prejudice here? Presupposing that these carriers pose an existential threat to a consumer’s ability to speak.
Net neutrality proponents may feel offended by the observation but their behavior invites valid comparison to their great-grandfathers who did the tormenting and their great-grandfathers who were tormented. Fringe elements of these groups have visited the home of one past Commission chairman during the net neutrality rules debate while the current chairman has received threats to his person as well as ethnic taunts. The Klan would be proud of these Netizens.