Commentary: We need net neutrality to fight algorithmic discrimination

Net neutrality is vital. Congress must do everything it can to pass strong rules that stop internet companies from creating digital fast lanes, discriminating against minority viewpoints or stifling fair competition online.

As an educator, I know young people need access to all ideas and viewpoints and must have the freedom to find information they need. They must not be spoon fed propaganda by secrete corporate algorithms or online profiling.

As an entrepreneur, I believe all competitors should have equal access to all digital platforms and tools. No cable company, search engine or social media gatekeeper should be allowed to use their power over internet traffic to block or stifle new competitors.

INSIGHT: When Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t speaking, his face did the talking.

And as a woman of color, I know that we need clear and enforceable rules of the road blocking what researchers call “algorithmic discrimination.” Google serves users with African-American-sounding names information on arrest records and delivers lower-paying job opportunities to female searchers than to males, cementing old stereotypes in place and undermining our hopes for a future that is more equal and more fair.

Last year, the FCC pulled back the net neutrality rules that the Obama Administration had enacted. It now falls to Congress to pass strong new net neutrality protections to replace those we have lost.

There are two competing approaches under consideration: One is a short-term process called the Congressional Review Act that would use a quick majority rule procedure to nullify the recent FCC decision and temporarily reinstate old neutrality rules; the other would follow “regular order” to pass a comprehensive, permanent law.

I understand why the CRA process is tempting, since it would ensure a quick Senate vote on this critical issue.

But like most temptations, the long-term pain of this approach outweighs the short-term euphoria. The CRA is not an ordinary statute that would permanently protect the internet; instead, it would restore an earlier set of FCC rules on this issue but would leave the administration free to scale back or weaken neutrality protections anytime. That leaves internet users at risk.

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The CRA also fails to address the full scope of the net neutrality problem, shortsightedly exempting the giant social media and tech companies that have business models built on prioritizing and circulating massive amounts of false, toxic and often racist information, such as about our elections, school shootings, and neo-Nazi gatherings in Charlottesville and elsewhere.

Before the 2016 election that gave so much power to Russian disinformation bots, many did not appreciate the need to rein in Silicon Valley’s control over the news and media we have access to online. Now, we know better. It isn’t possible to keep the internet open and free if Silicon Valley isn’t covered by basic rules of the road on openness, transparency, nondiscrimination and equality online. This is true in principle — and especially of an industry where companies routinely employ just 1 percent or 2 percent people of color.

And finally, the CRA approach is ultimately a mirage. It may pass the Senate, but no one expects it to pass the more conservative House or that President Trump would sign such a rebuke to his own FCC and restore the approach supported by President Obama.

Progressives should instead get to work on a comprehensive bipartisan net neutrality law that would protect full participation for internet users everywhere they go online.

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Democrats and Republicans both say they support net neutrality. Conservative and liberals both risk censorship and discrimination online without it. Internet providers, search and social media companies, artists and creators all strongly support the idea of a free and open internet – along with 76 percent of registered voters. New legislation isn’t easy, but with this kind of support, it’s possible. Rather than compromise with ourselves and accept posturing rather than real solutions, we should push Congress for a permanent long-term law.

The internet has become an irreplaceable gateway to full participation in American life. It connects us to education, work, art, culture, and most fundamentally to each other. It is the most important new technology of our lifetimes. We must fight to keep it free, fair, and open to all on equal terms.

Carew is an educator and co-founder and chief operations officer of the Justice Collective.

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