The Internet is the Next Civil Rights Battleground

The future of technology depends on equal access. Supporting net neutrality–and opposing law enforcement overreach–is the only way to fight for it.

Originally published on Medium.

You can trace many laws and policies to their direct impact on marginalized communities; with the stroke of a pen, lawmakers deny generational wealth by limiting access to homes, schools, and jobs. Systemic issues are rarely as overt as Jim Crow laws. Instead, policies like redlining keeps homeownership far from the grasp of families of color.

A new system of inequality is being constructed right now.

“FCC chair Ajit Pai has made it clear that, barring a successful legal challenge, the agency will give up its authority to actually enforce net neutrality regulations,” WIRED’s Klint Finley reported in May. “If the FCC decides to drop its own protections, you probably won’t wake up one day to find YouTube or Slack blocked. But the principles that made the internet what it is today could still erode over time.”

This means that people and organizations with money will be able to exert control over what we can access online. Internet service providers could begin blocking independent retailers or content providers in favor of their own, or charge extra fees for popular and necessary services, ultimately putting the burden on the consumers while lining their pockets with profits.

If not for a free and open internet, much of America might still be blind to the injustices black people face at the hands of the police, from dehumanization to death.

Platforms like Twitter and Medium have democratized, to some degree, whose stories get told. Writer Carvell Wallace noted on Twitter that conversations around race have dramatically shifted in recent years, in part because “The internet has to a significant extent removed traditional gatekeeping from media.” As more voices get swept into the wave of activism for social progress, these new tools have become indispensable. Or as Malkia A. Cyril, founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice, wrote for The Atlantic, “The open internet is democracy’s antidote to authoritarianism.”

Under the current presidential administration, signs of creeping authoritarianism are plentiful. Recently, the Department of Homeland Security has made it known that they intend to collect personal information found on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to track and identify immigrants–permanent residents and naturalized citizens included. If that’s not chilling enough, it came to light that the Department of Justice has demanded information on Facebook users, including 6,000 people who “liked” a page protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Whose rights to free speech and freedom from illegal search and seizure are protected in America in 2017? It’s currently up for debate.

Power-obsessed politicians and telecom lobbyists see not an antidote but the rise of movements protesting injustices like police brutality, powerfully led in the streets and on smartphones by organizers like DeRay Mckesson and witnesses like Diamond Reynolds.

Mckesson–an activist who rose to prominence while documenting the protests in Ferguson, Missouri–was streaming live video as the police found him among protesters in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after the killing of Alton Sterling. It’s unknown if police used the video stream to track his location, but it seems likely that they targeted him knowingly. Even when you’re already aware of the injustices black Americans disproportionately suffer at the hands of police, seeing it unfiltered changes your perspective.

In the video, Mckesson walks along the side of the highway with dozens of other protesters. He points his phone’s camera at the crowd and talks through what he’s witnessing. But you don’t have to take his word for it: The evidence is there. It’s about four seconds from when he’s told he’s under arrest to his phone hitting the concrete, the police officer repeating refrains of “Don’t fight me, don’t fight me,” even though Mckesson appears to remain calm.

Every decade is pockmarked by examples of law enforcement overreach and abuse, yet what we’ve witnessed in the last few years feels too numerous to count. Remaining calm is something black people have to do when confronted by the powerful arm of the law, and the internet gives us remove to do that.

“She documented the day so her Facebook followers, the state of Minnesota, and the nation might see,” Doreen St. Félix wrote of Diamond Reynolds, whose viral Facebook video documenting the police shooting and death of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, sparked a new wave of understanding brutality in the summer of 2016. “Reynolds’s graphic, nearly 10-minute recording is a particularly brave instance of citizen journalism, sousveillance of the police, and resourceful use of social media technology.”

Is it any surprise that the platforms for Mckesson and Reynolds have become targets?

Social media is a megaphone the government can’t turn off; their plan now seems to be to build discrimination into the infrastructure. As a blueprint, look no further than Robert Moses, New York City’s “master builder” of the 20th century, who built bridges so low that buses could not pass from the city to beaches on Long Island. Before anyone knew it, Moses’ racist infrastructure meant a generation of poor people couldn’t access a part of town. It wasn’t only leisure activities, like visiting the beach, which is often cited; work and education beyond a young black or Puerto Rican child’s neighborhood was suddenly out of reach, remaining so decades later.

Now everything from careers to activism moves to the internet, taking factories and rallies from urban, suburban, and rural communities alike. Instead of bridges, it’s a modem; instead of public transportation, it’s a web browser. By removing legislation meant to protect the vulnerable–in this case, consumers at large–the government would make it easier for Verizon and Comcast to build whatever barriers they see fit, no matter the consequences.

These sneakily laid traps are why it matters when we talk about the leadership of companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple being overwhelmingly white. The wealth these companies create is passed down for generations and invested in new companies, all while it concentrates in a few areas and with a few families, far away from the places their technologies are putting people out of business and the marginalized at risk. Instead of speaking up on behalf of their users when it comes to net neutrality, many key figures in technology are silent.

Supporting net neutrality alone won’t prevent law enforcement misuse, but it’s an important step. It will ensure a critical documentation tool remains available, not restricted behind a paywall only for a select few.

If you don’t care about equal access because your access can never be threatened, you expose those who don’t have the money or political power to fight back. This is how inequality develops. Each generation has been defined by struggles for freedom, in ways both big and small. Access to technology and the promise of privacy does not necessarily impact the body of American citizens as directly as other forms of injustice, but limiting connectivity or pushing people off of platforms for fear of tracking will deprive them of education and work. It will starve the body and mind both figuratively and literally.

A new wave of inequality is cresting, one that could take decades to undo, and most people don’t even know it’s coming.

Andy Newman