Guest Commentary

Net neutrality needs more than the quick fix McCaskill and others are pushing

The government should make sure there’s a single internet experience for every user.
The government should make sure there’s a single internet experience for every user. MCT

In this age of instant gratification, we may be conditioned to think that the most expedient option is the best. But Rome wasn’t built in a day — and we can’t rely on the path of least resistance to protect a free and open internet.

The battle for net neutrality started almost two decades ago and to see this through to an ethical and equitable solution, we must have a permanent law on the books preventing any internet provider or tech company from blocking websites, manipulating or sharing data, or discriminating online.

Right now, much of the energy is being focused on a quick-fix process in Congress called the Congressional Review Act, or CRA. Strongly supported by Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the CRA unfortunately will not create permanent statutory protection for net neutrality. While it might restore earlier Federal Communications Commission regulations on the issue, they will still be vulnerable to future partisan challenges.

Utilizing the CRA option will only serve to extend the conflict rather than bringing it to a close.

The 2015 version of net neutrality that the CRA would restore is strong in some ways, but harmful in others — most importantly it relies on obsolete utility-style regulation that many believe will make it harder to build new networks and connect communities that don’t have access to high speed broadband.

Back in 2015, the NAACP and the Communications Workers of America warned against this version of neutrality and predicted it could put hundreds of thousands of broadband jobs at risk by driving away investment. One study found that this version of the rules could eliminate as much as $30 billion a year in network investment.

Similarly, local efforts in both Missouri and Kansas to protect net neutrality at the state level are also doomed to fail. There is only one internet, and state-by-state broadband laws will create a mismatched framework of conflicting standards that will bog down the internet and drain resources needed to connect underserved neighborhoods, speed up the internet for everyone and close the digital divide for good.

Even worse, both the CRA and statutes currently proposed in Kansas and Missouri offer only partial protection for internet users — completely exempting the big tech social media and search giants that shape and influence so much of what we can do and see online.

Consumers are keenly aware that our online experiences are increasingly curated by search and media platforms that track and monetize our every click. And now, through the probe of Facebook’s role in the 2016 elections, we are already grappling with the implications of the control big tech and social media platforms have over our personal data and the ethical and legal implications of the ways they monetize that information and influence decision-making.

Google, for example, has already been fined $2.7 billion for discriminating in its search results by favoring its own services and smothering competitors. And Amazon just patented new technology to prevent consumers in its physical stores (including the nearly 500 Whole Foods locations it just bought) from using store Wi-Fi to compare prices.

Even more alarming is that many of these types of platforms seem built on algorithms that pick and choose what we see and experience online, yet are overwhelmingly run by white and male employees who seem oblivious to basic requirements of fairness and equality online.

The social implications are profound. One study found that users with African-American identifying names are 25 percent more likely to receive ads involving arrest records and background checks. Another by Carnegie Mellon University found that Google searches show higher paying jobs to men than to women. We need an information ecosystem where society’s needs and basic principles of openness and equality shape our opportunities and experiences online, not predatory monopolies and antiquated biases.

Big tech and social media companies are critical actors with the ability to make the internet more inclusive and welcoming or divisive and hateful.

Instead of half measures that exempt big tech, we need comprehensive federal net neutrality legislation that requires fair play, transparency, equal competition and an end to viewpoint discrimination, censorship, harassment or abuse everywhere online. This is vital for an industry that has such a poor track record on questions of equal opportunity, open competition, and diversity.

The sponsors of the CRA bill like McCaskill mean well, but only permanent federal legislation can address the holistic needs of the internet ecosystem and fairly regulate all parties to effectively protect our communities and the internet itself.

Amy Hinojosa is president and CEO of MANA, A National Latina Organization. MANA’s mission is to empower Latinas through leadership development, community service and advocacy.

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