Let’s pass a net neu­tral­ity law to fight al­go­rith­mic dis­crim­i­na­tion

Austin American-Statesman - - VIEWPOINTS -

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.

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 short­term 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.

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 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 Don­ald Trump would sign such a re­buke to his own FCC and re­store the ap­proach sup­ported by for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack 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.

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.

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